NPF: AUTOMATIC

The Cardinals team that I expected to go 3-13 this season closed out a surprise 10-6 year with a close loss to their hated rivals the 49ers on Sunday. In a tight game (San Fran 23, Arizona 20) the kickers were the difference. The Cardinals' Jay Feely missed two makeable field goals (37 and 43 yards) while SF's Phil Dawson provided the three-point margin of victory with a 56 yard moon shot in the 4th quarter. Retrospectives on the season are unanimous, as are fans around the internet, that Feely must be replaced this offseason.

This highlights a fascinating trend in the NFL over the past twenty years. The kicking game has become so accurate that coaches, players, and fans alike treat it as automatic. If a kicker ever misses, his job security is immediately called into question. I've done a bit of research and uncovered some statistics that underscore the point.

For the season Jay "Unemployed" Feely was 30 for 36 on field goals (83%). In 1965, the league leader, long-time Cardinal Jim Bakken, hit 67% of his kicks. In 2013 the worst kicker in the league, an aging Sebastian Janikowski, hit 70%. The league leader, Matt Prater, was a ridiculous 25-of-26 (96%) including an unheard of 64 yarder, a record. The Saints Garrett Hartley was waived a few weeks ago for hitting 73% on the year. So the worst kicker in today's NFL was better than the best kicker in seasons past. Jim Bakken's league-leading 67% from 1965 wouldn't even have been good enough to keep his job today.

Want a few more percentages? The current career leaderboard is dominated by active and recent kickers. Of players with at least three seasons of experience, former Colt Mike Vanderjagt is the all-time leader with 86% for his career. Dozens of other modern kickers are right behind him with career averages between 80 and 85 percent. Jan Stenerud, the sole kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and widely recognized as a legend, hit 66% for his career. George Blanda, another Hall of Famer as a QB and K, held the NFL scoring record for decades following his retirement and was a 52% career FG kicker. And he was a full-time kicker in the NFL for twenty-six years.

It's not just about accuracy; let's talk about distance. The NFL career mark for over-50 yard FGs is held by Jason Hanson, who made 52 such kicks. Morten Andersen, considered widely to be the greatest long-range kicker in history upon his retirement, made 40 (on 84 attempts!) in his career. In 2012, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh made ten-of-ten FGs over 50 yards. That is, in one season he got a quarter of the way to Andersen's total from 22 seasons. And he didn't miss a single one. Hall of Famer Stenerud made a grand total of 17 kicks from over 50. Walsh will surpass that in his third season. Of the 14 field goals made from 60 or more yards in NFL history, half (7/14) have been since 2010. Sixty-yarders aren't exactly routine but they're no longer rare.

One final stats: League-wide, kickers made 13% of kicks over 50 yards in the 1960s. Since 2000 the number is 54% and increasing annually. What was once seen for what it is – a remarkably difficult thing to do, kicking an oblong ball through six-yard wide uprights from 150+ feet over a seven-plus foot wall of men trying to block it – is now routine:

When Jason Hanson entered the NFL nearly two decades ago, he got hugs and high-fives for nailing a long field goal. Now, he's lucky to get a handshake. "It used to be 45 and over was, 'Great kick! You made it!"' the Detroit Lions kicker recounted. "Now, it's like, you miss under 50 and people are kind of like, 'What's the matter?"'

So what gives? The two most obvious answers are, one, that kickers are becoming better, stronger athletes just like every other NFL player. Compare the 230-pound offensive linemen and the scrawny 5'10" receivers of the 60s and 70s with the 350-pound behemoths and 6'3" 220-pound sprinters of today and the difference is obvious. The second big change was the development of the soccer-style kick as opposed to the traditional straight-on approach, a topic I've written about at length previously due to the influx of hilariously-named foreign kickers it brought into the NFL.

There are additional factors. There is better coaching from an earlier age combined with the era of specialization. Today's kickers are kickers – period. George Blanda kicked but was also a QB. Ditto Hall of Famers like QB Bob Waterfield, RB Paul Hornung, and OL Lou Groza. Teams didn't have "a kicker" prior to 1960. It was whoever they had at some other position that happened to be the best at kicking. They lined up during training camp and took a whack at it and the coach picked someone to kick (and punt). It was not unusual for six or seven different players on the roster to attempt a kick during a season. Today kickers are dedicated kickers from Pee Wee and high school football up to the pro level. And they have specific kicking coaches all along the way. Specialization has also taken place with the kickers' best friends, the long-snappers, who now do nothing but long-snap and place the ball precisely in the right spot. Every time.

One other thing is often overlooked, in my opinion: the playing surface has improved. Kicking is extremely sensitive to weather (Remember the hilarious kicks in that Bears-Niners game in gale force winds a few years ago?) and the field. In rain or snow or wind, accuracy falls rapidly. Well now we have domed stadiums all over the league and either impeccable grass surfaces or advanced artificial ones like FieldTurf. Compare that to the muddy, sparse cow pastures teams played on (in outdoor stadiums) in the past and there's no question it helps.

The kicking game has become almost too accurate; the machine-like precision of modern kickers is changing the game. Today, as soon as a team gets across the 40 yard line it's getting to be an automatic 3 points. This has led to calls to narrow the goalposts in an effort to make the game less predictable, although that proposal has been met without enthusiasm. Fans know that the sport has changed a lot over the years, but it's odd to think of a guy like Jay Feely getting the pink slip over a performance that a few years ago might have earned him a case full of trophies.

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26 Responses to “NPF: AUTOMATIC”

  1. Death Panel Truck Says:

    It should be noted that of the 16 points Green Bay scored in its victory over the New York Giants in the 1962 NFL Championship Game, nine came from field goals kicked by right guard Jerry Kramer.

  2. Chocko_Rocko Says:

    Thanks for this interesting read.

  3. J. Dryden Says:

    This piece comes at an appropriate time, given Chris Kluwe's apologia yesterday over on Deadspin (I won't usurp the thread with a digressive link, but you can seek it out if you're curious); his case that his firing was determined by politics rather than performance may not be as air-tight as he claims. (Even though he's probably right, all the same.)

  4. Misterben Says:

    I've always wondered if kickers use performance-enhancing drugs. You know, huddled over in the locker room, shakily plunging needle after needle full of horse semen (or whatever) into their thighs: "Gotta get better at my one job…gotta get better at my one job…"
    Having read this, I must conclude that yes, of course they do.

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    One more point, Ed.
    There are a hell of a lot more field goals attempted today, than before.
    Why more?
    Part of that is the accuracy gained by using side-winding soccer-style kickers.
    Part of that is the specialization.
    Part of it is the improved field conditions.
    All of which you mentioned.

    But I'd like to bring one other thing to people's attention.
    Field position, when kicking.
    Remember the goal-posts were ON the Goal Line until the 1974 season. Now, they're on the End Line.

    So, before that season, a missed 50 yard field goal meant that the other team took over on the 50 yard line.
    Now, a missed 50 yarder, means the other team takes over at their 40.
    In the NFL, that 10 yard means a hell of a lot!
    So, coaches sent in their punters a hell of a lot more, back in those days, hoping he's plant one inside the other team's 20.

    So, I think that's another factor.

    People interested in this post, might also be interested in this short video – it's about a HS Football Coach in Arkansas, who NEVER PUNTS!
    Also, he ALWAYS TRIES AN ON-SIDE-KICK, AFTER THEY SCORE!!!
    Radical, yes. But also scientific, as he explains.

    His winning record, after switching to doing that, is amazing.

    It'll be interesting to see how long before this moves up the ladder to College, then the NFL.

    Have a nice weekend everyone.
    My Giants sucked this year, and my Dolphins fell apart at the end, so I haven't figured out who I'm going to be rooting for.

    Maybe Peyton, because he's the greatest regular season QB of all-time – even better than my beloved hero, Dan Marino.
    It might be nice to see a guy as nice as Peyton win another SB.
    But, I'm still not sure.
    I have until tomorrow morning to decide.
    Maybe Seattle, because they've never won one. Or, KC.

    I'm just glad that the Cowboys did their annual "December Flop!"
    I'm old enough to remember that when the Giants had a 1-15 season, or something along those lines, if we beat Dallas even ONCE, it was considered a GREAT season.

    Who are you rooting for?

  6. sluggo Says:

    Yet with this added importance in the kicking game, college punters and kickers largely go undrafted. Team wait until after the NFL draft and then sign them as free agents. Why not, if they see someone that they like in college lock them up with a 6th or 7th round pick?

    Long snapping used to be an adventure, with snaps sailing over the heads of punters and holders, but not so much anymore. It is much more specialized. The Chicago Bears have had the same long snapper for over 15 years and he has become very wealthy because of that skill. Virginia Tech gave a full ride scholarship to long snapper out of Minnesota several years ago.

    I am not quite as radical as the Arkansas HS coach, but don't punt if you are over the fifty yard line.

    ( are any non-Americans still reading at this point?)

  7. Waspuppet Says:

    cund:

    Actually no – before 1974 after all missed FGs the ball was placed on the 20, no matter where it was attempted from (unless the kick was returned of course). The point was to make coaches think twice about going for long FGs, but I never thought about the consequence you bring up. That's a factor I'm sure.

    If they REALLY wanted to reduce FGs and increase touchdowns they'd do the Canadian thing and make the end zones 25 yards. Every FG would be 15 yards longer and scoring TDs in the red zone would be easier with that much more room to work with. Of course, they'll never do it because they don't want to spend the money retrofitting the stadiums, which shows how important they really think the problem is.

  8. Upeople Says:

    How about moving the hash marks back to pre-'72 location?

  9. Well mostly Says:

    My Dad taught me the drop-kick, which he learned playing high school football. The hike went right to the kicker. Added to the spray of the toe first kick was the element of dropping the ball so it hits the ground and bounces up, apparently a requirement. Kinda like a reverser tennis serve toss. Can't remember seeing a blocked kick for a long time either. Everything gets better: so much money backing all this. Has the Red zone scoring gone down with all the FGs?
    Been cheering for Denver for 40 years. Looking good so far.

  10. c u n d gulag Says:

    Waspuppet,
    Sheeeeesh!
    You'd think I'd remember that!
    I was 16 when the rule changed.

    Near-senior Dementia is no… no… what's the word I'm looking for?
    Oh, yeah – "toke."
    No, that's probably what helped caused it.
    Now I've got it – "JOKE!"

  11. Leslee Says:

    I would be a lot more interested in American football if there was an equivelant sport in which women received the same amount of PAY and prestige while being cheered on the sidelines by young attractive men in skimpy clothing.

  12. c u n d gulag Says:

    Leslee,
    So, basically what you're saying, is that you're not interested in ANY American sport.
    Or, come to think of it, any sport ANYWHERE! ;-)

  13. John Says:

    One thing you didn't mention was the enormus amount of kids who play soccer. They start at 5 years old. Every football kicker i meet was a soccer player.

  14. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Very interesting post. It would be great to drill down into the effect of field surface and dome stadium on the field goal stats. My guess is that is, by far, the most important factor. Go EAGLES!

  15. Dillon Says:

    @J. Dryden
    Kluwe is a punter, not a placekicker.

  16. J. Dryden Says:

    @Dillon: My ignorance. (I saw 'kicker,' and misread its meaning as inclusive, rather than identifying.)

  17. jazzbumpa Says:

    c u n d –

    Is Peyton really a nice person?

    Somehow I got the impression he was an ultra-conservative asshole.

    Anyway, he lost me a few years ago, after the Colts went down in a playoff game. He was less than stellar that day, and called out his offensive line for poor protection.

    Very low class, I thought.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  18. c u n d gulag Says:

    jb,
    You may be right. All I know is what I read and hear. I live in NY, and don't regularly see his games – and yeah, I know he's on, but as I get older, my interest in sports wanes. Now, I usually only watch the Giants, because I root for them, and whoever's playing the Jets, since I root for them against the Jets.
    And, after all, Peyton does commercials with that Papa Johns asshole.
    And John Elway IS a Conservative asshole – that's for sure.

    And maybe I'm thinking of Eli, his brother, and the Giants QB (he still looks like he's 12!).
    Eli's ALWAYS been a class act, not a diva like his brother. And I've never heard him blame anyone but himself of anything.
    And in the past 2 years, he's thrown a lot of Int's, so he could have passed plenty of blame around – like an OL that leakier than a spaghetti strainer, and WR's who run disinterred routes, and don't fight for the ball – except Victor Cruz, who's also a terrific, class act.

    This week, I think I'll root for Indy, NO, SD, and GB.
    Maybe I'll even have a few games on in the background.
    I'll adjust accordingly, later.

  19. jharp Says:

    I remember a punter whiffing a punt due to wind circa 1985.

    I think it was in a playoff game and I think it was Giants at Bears.

  20. HeidiB Says:

    I'm a proud owner of a Steven Hauschka jersey, since he's our go-to kicker for the Seahawks. Watch for him next week! The kicking game is one thing that sets American football apart, and I don't see a reason to change it. Can we talk about offensive vs. defensive penalties next?

  21. eau Says:

    I know nfl teams poach punters from AFL ( Australian rules), I wonder why they don't grab place kickers from rugby? Those guys routinely kick goals from 40 metres ON THE SIDELINE. Surely they could pop them over from right in front in their sleep.

  22. khaled Says:

    @eau- from what I've seen of rugby (admittedly, not a whole lot) is that those kickers are typically not specialists as they are in American Football. I've seen some college teams have punters or kickers from rugby areas, and it seems that the "automatic" of the NFL and college level would require a tad more specialization.

    About the Kluwe nonsense- I think the part of his tirade/ deadspin post is the part where he is talking about playing with his band instead of paying attention to the draft, etc. Chris Kluwe claimed his firing was based on anything but stats, but since the NFL is a cold, hard business, it might have had nothing to do with his outspokenness…. at least as far as it from a "gay rights" aspect. Punters are largely a dime a dozen- if you have an average one, you can get another average one for a lot cheaper. NFL coaches are notoriously paranoid about "distraction", so the fact that Kluwe was getting attention for non-football related stuff would have made it easier to cut him.
    Kickers and punters have gotten better over the years for similar reasons- long snappers, better training methods, better coverages, rule changes.
    I remember watching a college football game a few years back (or maybe more than a few) and Michigan was having a lot of trouble with the punt returner for the other team. I'm not sure when exactly it happened, but at some point in the game, I guess the Michigan coaches decided it was worth the 5 yard penalty (at the time) for hitting the punter returner before the ball got there. So every punt, the coverage team would make absolutely no attempt to even wait for the ball to get to the returner, and just run the punt returner over, full speed. Flags would fly, and the 5 yard penalty was enforced. The next year (I think) it became a 15 yard penalty to hit the punt returner while defenseless.
    The NFL has rewarded specialists for a long time now- it'd be interesting to see if a team would recruit a rugby player who could kick AND play safety or something similar- you wouldn't have to waste a roster spot on a player was just a specialist.

  23. A.B.A.B.D. Says:

    Many thanks for the post, Ed—previously, I'd thought I was the only one who perused kicking stats from days of yore on pro-football-reference.com. Glad to know we're kindred spirits in yet another obscure domain.

  24. Buckyblue Says:

    HeidiB: you'll remember Efren Herrera then, place kicker for the Hawks back in the '70s. He always seemed to have a field goal in his back pocket for the Raiders. When he beat John Madden on a last second kick once Madden said it was like getting kicked in the stomach. Nothing could be sweeter.

  25. chris Says:

    i loathe the kicking game. while the scoring balance is very nifty at first glance, the kicking game has done more to ruin the game than anything (yes even anti-conconcussion penalties!). it's dumb, it ruins just about every close game (though those games likely wouldn't have been so close had the coaches not played ultraconservative run-and-kick-ball), and it really serves no purpose than to trot out the backups eight times a game. people like to relate football to chess for some reason. well, imagine chess where, every third turn, you got to flip a coin to see whether you could kill a random enemy piece.

  26. DWhite Says:

    The mention of George Blanda brought back memories. In 1960 I was a 12 year old kid in Houston and joined the Junior Quarterbacks Club for the Houston Oilers. We got to sit in the end zone seats of the University of Houston stadium where they played. Watched the old man Blanda QB and kick while young star Billy Cannon ran the ball.