Veteran kickers dominate playoff landscape

While two teams are in the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks and other squads have starters with fewer than five years of experience, veteran kickers are found much more often on this year's playoff rosters. Ryan Longwell isn't surprised, citing several reasons that veterans are so important to have come playoff time.

There has been a long-held axiom in the NFL that the key to winning is having a veteran quarterback that is the face of the franchise. In the past 20 years, players like Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Steve Young and Peyton Manning have cemented that image.

But to take a look around the playoff class of 2008, it could be argued that the key to success isn't a veteran quarterback, it's a veteran kicker. Of the 12 playoff teams, two of them (Atlanta and Baltimore) are starting rookie quarterbacks. With Tarvaris Jackson, the Vikings are starting a third-year QB that has fewer than 25 career starts. San Diego's Philip Rivers is in just his third season. Two other teams (Tennessee and Arizona) started training camp with third-year guys with limited starting experience, only to switch to veterans due to injuries and ineffectiveness.

In short, having a stud veteran quarterback doesn't necessarily equate to success. Clearly, it doesn't hurt, but it isn't required.

But what about kickers? Is it just coincidence that some teams routinely go through a couple of kickers a year and others have the same kicker for a decade or more? Don't kid yourself. When it comes to team success, having a reliable kicker is a must.

Take a look around the playoffs over the next month and you will hear the stories about the aged, grizzled kickers. Why? Because they're everywhere. Of the 12 kickers in the playoffs, only two have less than five years experience – fourth-year Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas and Miami rookie Dan Carpenter. Only two of the remaining 10 have less than nine years experience – San Diego's Nate Kaeding (5) and Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed (7).

Two-thirds of the kickers in the postseason have nine or more years of experience, including all six in the NFC playoffs. There's Neil Rackers (9 years), David Akers (10), Ryan Longwell (12), Adam Vinatieri (13), Jason Elam (16), John Kasay (18), Matt Stover (19) and John Carney (20). Stover has been around so long, he came to Baltimore when the franchise moved from Cleveland.

Call it a coincidence if you want, but Longwell believes that the high number of veteran kickers in the postseason is no fluke. It didn't just happen by chance. In an era where the difference between a great team and a good team and the difference between a good team and a mediocre team is extremely marginal, a reliable kicker is a must. If Longwell had missed two game-ending field goals this year, the Vikings would have been 8-8 and out of the playoffs, instead of 10-6 and a division champion playing at home. As he sees it, the league understands the value of having kickers who have been there, done that.

"In this day and age in the NFL, you're going to have at least three or four games that are going to come down to making a field goal at the end of the game to win or lose," Longwell said. "The guys that have been in that situation before are more reliable. You know what you're going to get in that situation. You want guys like that. Everybody is enamored with the young kid with leg strength in August, but can he last through the season and what do you do when a game is on the line?"

It wasn't always that way. When Longwell came into the league in 1997, the first problems with the salary cap were coming home to roost. In any given year, half the teams were above the salary cap at the start of a fiscal year and would have to jettison veteran players to get under. A 10-year veteran kicker would cost five to 10 times as much as a strong-legged rookie and many teams made the decision to go with youth and take their chances – gambles that often came back to bite them in the clutch. In the dozen years that have passed since he was rookie, Longwell said the approach taken by teams has taken a 180-degree turn. Teams are more willing to spend for a veteran kicker that has a track record of success rather than going with the training camp flavor of the month that can boom kickoffs in the summer but misses critical field goals in December with playoff berths on the line.

"When it comes down to crunch time, it doesn't matter if a 50-yard field goal goes over the upright and looks like it would have been good from 65 yards," Longwell said. "All that matters is that it went through. In my 12 years, the league has evolved from one that wanted those live young legs to going to the guys you know are going to kick the ball straight and have been there before. There is the perception that your leg strength is lessened as you get older, but I would argue that you hit the ball cleaner the older you get and, in many ways, that makes your kicks better than if you have a stronger kicking leg."

Older kickers face the stigma of having diminishing leg strength, which usually manifests itself on kickoffs. While a younger kicker is more likely to boom kickoffs into the end zone that aren't returned, the job of a kicker entails much more than that. Few games are won and lost on kickoffs. Many are won and lost by last-second field goals. However, despite having 53 players on an active roster, less than a handful of teams go with two kickers – one to kick the ball off and another to boot extra points and field goals. Most franchises have given in to having three specialists – a kicker, a punter and a long snapper. But few are willing to go with four. Speaking for the older kickers in the league, Longwell said he gets a much better feel for how he might be able to kick a potential game-winner by also handling kickoff duties.

"You have to sacrifice a roster spot to carry two kickers, so that is why so few teams do it," Longwell said. "Most older kickers want to kick off so they can a get a feel for what the wind will do to the ball and to just get loose and let some kicks fly. This year, I can say for a fact that there were kicks I made in Tampa and Jacksonville that I would not have made if I wouldn't have kicked off before those to see how the ball was flying. To carry an extra guy, you have to ask if that extra yard or two or extra couple of touchbacks on kickoffs (make it) worth carrying one less linebacker or lineman or wide receiver? Most teams don't think so."

As the playoffs begin this weekend and run through Feb. 1, there are sure to be several games that are won and lost as the result of field goals that are made or missed. Unlike any other position, there is no margin for error. Jackson might throw a couple of interceptions and it doesn't necessarily win or lose the game. Adrian Peterson can have a critical fumble, but he will get a chance to redeem himself. For the kickers, there isn't that luxury. A missed field goal can turn a potential hero into a goat. Just ask Scott Norwood. Mention the words "wide right" to a Buffalo Bills fans and they will go ballistic – and it has been almost 20 years since Norwood missed what would have been a Super Bowl-winning 48-yard field goal.

While kickers may not be viewed as athletes in the same way the other players on the roster are, Longwell said that only people that are in his small fraternity realize the pressure they're under and the weight they carry on their shoulders – which may explain why so many of the successful teams in the 2008 playoffs have kickers with a wealth of experience.

"If you look at our season, one or two missed kicks more than we had and we're sitting home right now," Longwell said. "We're unique in that we're the only ones that know what it's like to go through what we do. You can have coaches that have been around for a long time and players that have been at their positions for a long time, but nobody else knows what it's like to have one chance and one chance only. You are expected to come through every time. We are kind of unique in that we know each other's struggles and how tough it is to do what we're asked to do."


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