At a time when Minnesota Vikings fans (and to some degree coaches and players) are still having a hard time accepting the fact that kicker Blair Walsh missed a game-winning chip-shot field goal that ended their 2015 season in the first round of the playoffs, the discussion of kickers is something of a sore subject in which the scab hasn’t healed up quite yet. For some, it may never fully heal.
But Minnesota isn’t alone in that respect. A lot of organizations are looking differently at kickers now than they have in some time, an issue that is only going to get more pronounced this season when touchbacks will be coming back to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, making it a less attractive option to simply hire kickers capable of routinely booming kicks out of the end zone.
It would seem that the NFL doesn’t like kickers … not even a little bit.
There was a time when kickers were position players who doubled as kickers simply because they could kick the ball straighter than other players. They stood directly behind the ball and kicked with relative accuracy, but nothing close to being automatic.
Fred Cox is the most prolific kicker in franchise history, yet in 15 seasons he made just 62 percent of his career field goals – which meant he missed two out of every five on average. These days, a kicker who makes four out of every five is viewed as a roster liability that needs to improve to keep his job. Cox wouldn’t have made it through training camp or the preseason with his career numbers, much less last 15 years.
The NFL has had it in for kickers since the European invasion of the 1970s, when soccer players with a sidewinding approach to the ball with more distance and accuracy became the rage. Almost from the advent of the arrival of more accurate kickers, the NFL has seemingly been looking to eliminate their impact.
The league has messed with kickers apparently in hopes of making their failures more costly to their teams. Kickoffs used to come from the 40-yard line. If today’s kickers were kicking off from that point, the ball would be landing 20 rows deep in the stands. They were pushed back to the 35-yard line. Then the 30-yard line. It was only the reaction to the number of concussions sustained during kickoff returns that it was moved back to the 35-yard line to encourage touchbacks and making kickoffs largely meaningless for many teams.
The league also determined that kickers should have a bigger challenge to making field goals. If you look at old Super Bowl footage, you’ll notice the goal posts were at the goal line. Now they’re 10 yards deeper at the back of the end zone. The only players impacted by that change of field position was the kicker.
The next step in the historic penalizing of kickers was to make a missed field goal even more painful for a team. It used to be that you could attempt an improbable field goal of 50 yards back in the day and if you missed the ball was placed on the 20-yard line. Once the ball was placed at the spot where the ball was kicked, it forced coaches to make potential game-changing decisions as to whether to attempt a long field or punt and try to pin an opponent deep and force them to drive 90 yards to score a touchdown.
Yet, kickers become more automatic all the time. Suddenly, it wasn’t improbable for a kicker to make 90 percent of his field goal attempts in a season and go years without missing an extra point. These little guys who don’t typically get their jerseys dirty were becoming too big a part of winning and losing games.
The NFL can’t have any of that.
As an experiment last year – which became permanent this year – the NFL decided to make extra points into a 33-yard field goal. The problem with that was kickers, like any other players, are creatures of habit. When they’re preparing to kick a field goal, whether a long bomb or a chip shot, they have time to get ready and know it’s coming if the offense fails on third down. Touchdowns can happen at any time from any place on the field and can be scored without warning by the offense, defense and special teams.
The result of the switch to push back the extra point line got teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers to consider just going for two points following every touchdown because the numbers told them they will convert more often than they miss. The days of the automatic extra point were done.
Kickers combined to miss 71 extra points of 1,217 extra points last year (94.2 percent) from the new distance of having the ball placed on the 15-yard line. That compared to just 37 of 6,153 attempts the previous five years combined (99.4 percent). The last time NFL kickers made less than 95 percent of their extra points was in 1979. From 1992-2014, no kicker who attempted 20 or more extra points ever made less 90 percent of them. In 2015, five kickers who attempted 20 or more extra points made less than 90 percent.
Walsh had his struggles. Coming off a 2014 season when he missed 9 of 35 field goal attempts for a league-worst 74.3 percent success rate, he was under the microscope in 2015. While his field goal percentage improved to 87.2 percent – missing just five of 39 attempts, he missed 4 of 37 extra points. In his first three years, even when he struggled kicking field goals, he was automatic on extra points – missing just one of 109 attempts in that span.
Walsh was far from alone. Several kickers struggled badly under the new system, missing more extra points in one season than they had in previous seasons combined together. Consider the following:
- Dan Carpenter – In his first seven seasons, he missed just 2 of 219 extra points. He missed 6 of 40 last year.
- Graham Gano – In his first three seasons with Carolina, he missed just 1 of 97 extra points. He missed three extra points last year.
- Stephen Gostkowski – He hadn’t missed an extra point since his rookie season of 2006. His missed extra point in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game against Denver completed changed the complexion of the game, forcing the Patriots to go for two points in the third quarter and the fourth quarter. They failed on both and were denied a Super Bowl berth in a 20-18 loss.
- Steven Hauschka – In seven seasons with three teams, he missed just 3 of 205 extra points. He missed 4 of 44 attempts last year.
- Sebastian Janikowski – He missed an extra point last year, just the second time he had missed one since 2005.
- Nick Novak – In seven seasons with the Cardinals, Redskins, Chiefs and Chargers, Novak missed just 1 of 189 extra points. He missed 2 of 31 last year with Houston.
- Matt Prater – In his first eight seasons, Prater missed just 2 of 183 extra points and had made 181 straight from 2011-14. He missed 3 of 39 PATs in 2015.
- Ryan Succop – He had never missed an extra point in six NFL seasons, making all 187 attempts. He missed 2 of 31 attempts last season.
- Adam Vinatieri – In nine seasons with the Colts, Vinatieri had missed 3 of 387 extra points. He missed 3 of 35 last season.
With the Vikings moving inside to play half their games for the foreseeable future in U.S. Bank Stadium, the elements won’t come into play for kickers there. But the rules seem to be stacked against kickers. The new addition to the rules that places a touchback at the 25-yard line will encourage returners to take a knee for any kick in the back half of the end zone.
A lot of players and coaches don’t consider kickers to be full-fledged players, despite their value and how often their play factors heavily into winning or losing. It would appear the league is doing its best to marginalize a kicker’s impact on games. From moving the goal posts to the kickoff line to making missed field goals more onerous to bringing in a 2-point option to moving the extra point line, it would seem the NFL has a ritual of hazing and punishing kickers at every turn.
For guys like Walsh, the changes have impacted their long-term job security and value.