A lot more kickers have been making news this year than in a normal season and it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Kickers are missing field goals at an alarming rate that hasn’t been seen in decades. The NFL has changed rules over the years to make things more difficult on kickers – moving the goal posts to the back of the end zone, moving the spot of missed field goals from the 20-yard line to the spot of the miss, moving the kickoff line from the 40-yard line to the 30 then back to the 35, moving the extra point line back and making it more onerous to kick touchbacks.
It seems like you can’t go three or four years without having someone from the NFL’s competition committee looking to marginalize or make the job of a kicker more difficult.
For Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, it’s been an adjustment that has been hard to explain. He led the NFL in 2015 with 34 field goals (on 39 attempts), but missed four of 37 extra points, which used to be automatic.
What’s the problem? Walsh has a theory.
“I think it’s more the extra points that are the problem,” Walsh said. “I think guys don’t have that kick to get them in rhythm of the game yet. The 20-yard extra point was a live, in-game practice rep. Unless it was blocked or the snap was bobbled, you almost never missed from that close. That’s gone now. Last week, my field goal was 30 yards and my extra point was 33 yards. It’s weird when that happens. It’s a process that guys are still getting used to. I think over time those numbers will trend back upward.”
One of the primary differences for kickers with the new extra point line is that they prepare for field goals in the event the offense gets into scoring position. In the past, if the offense scored a touchdown, the standard 20-yard extra point was all but automatic. That changed dramatically last year when the line was moved from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard.
In the 2015 regular season, NFL kickers missed 71 extra points. From 2010-14 combined, kickers missed just 37 of 6,153 extra points. The missed PAT rate was the worst since 1982 and the number of missed extra points was the highest since 1977.
Kickers didn’t have to prepare for the standard extra point. If an offense (or defense or special teams) scored, the kicker could typically hit a 20-yard extra point in his sleep. But, when a team can score at any time from any distance, it changes things up for kickers that they haven’t dealt with in the past where they now have to kick that sudden extra point from farther out.
“It’s not necessarily an element of surprise, but it’s more that you’re prepared for a longer field goal and you’re preparing for something long distance and suddenly we score and it’s a much shorter attempt on an extra point. The same goes with being in close and you’re preparing for a short field goal if needed and we score and you back up 10 yards or so for the extra point. You need to be prepared for both.”
For the first half of the season – half of the league has played eight games and the other half has played seven games to date – the numbers have been startling, both with field goals and extra points.
In 2015, only one full-time kicker (Greg Zuerlein of St. Louis) had a field goal percentage of 80 or less – and six of his 10 misses came from 50 yards and beyond.
This season, a whopping 12 kickers are making field goals at a percentage below 80, including Walsh (78.6 percent). To date, 28 extra points have been missed, which puts 2016 on pace to miss about 60 extra points – a slight improvement over the first year of the 33-yard extra point, but still far too many misses.
What makes it more daunting for kickers is that the veteran kickers seem to be having more of a mental block with long field goals than younger ones.
“It’s just a weird feeling,” Walsh said. “I think it’s taken a lot of guys who have been in little longer to adjust because we’re just not used to kicking 33-yard extra points. It’s something you’ve never done before and a lot of kickers have been doing the same thing after every touchdown since they were in high school. It’s a pretty big shift on how things are done.”
Walsh has noticed the high miss rate on field goals – the list of sub.-80 percent kickers includes long-time veterans Stephen Gostkowski, Sebastian Janikowski and Mike Nugent – and finds it to be more problematic because it is a league-wide phenomenon.
But he’s confident that the adjustment process is in place and the only problem that kickers will be facing in the coming years is that they are expected to make every kick every week every year – even if it is an unrealistic expectation.
“I think people get bent out of shape because so many people are missing one or two,” Walsh said. “I think you need to take a step back and realize that the extra point is no longer automatic. Unfortunately, people expect it to be.”