Sports, when distilled to their most basic objectives, can sound pretty silly. The goal of soccer is to kick a rubber ball into a net. In hockey, the object is to slap a rubber cylinder past a goalie with a wooden stick. In baseball, the defense has the ball but throws it at the batter in the hopes that he will whack it back as gently as possible. Those are just the mainstream sports; dare I mention curling?
Humans go crazy for this stuff.
In America’s favorite sport, football, the object is to advance a sewn-together pigskin past several painted lines in the hopes of getting to the grand poobah of all painted lines: the goal line. However, one objective in football makes the others look downright practical. When the offense fails to advance the pigskin all the way to the goal-line, they may opt to bring on a skinny, often balding member of the team to kick the pigskin through two vertical “goalposts,” set beyond the final painted line. No one really knows why kickers are in football anyway. So why is poor kicking one of the most dominant headlines of the NFL season so far?
Don’t get me wrong—kicking in football is genuinely difficult. I have looked utterly silly trying to do it from chip-shot range. But kicking the football is the kicker’s only job. They are professional kickers. This makes their role arguably the most specific and one-dimensional position in any American sport. Their only job is right there in their title, kicker. It’s nothing ill-defined, like “offensive tackle,” which does the exact opposite of their job title. All kickers ever do is kick the football and practice kicking the football.
If you’ve ever been to an NFL training camp, you’ve probably seen the kickers either kicking the football from various angles and distances or shootin’ the breeze with the punter while the rest of the team pukes out their body weight from heatstroke. I have never seen a kicker accomplish anything team oriented. Given these realities, one would imagine that kickers would be solid across the board, but kickers have cost their teams time and time again in the most critical situations.
A specter is haunting the NFL—the specter of kickers.
As a rookie, Blair Walsh set an NFL record for field goal percentage beyond 50 yards out, making 10 out of 10. In the 2016 Wild Card game between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, the now-five-year veteran readied himself for a 27-yard field goal. The Vikings trailed by just one point with 26 seconds remaining. A conversion by their sure-footed kicker would send the Vikings to the divisional round for the first time in six years. The long snapper sent the ball to the holder, who placed it neatly by the left hash for Walsh’s right foot to connect with. The kick hooked, veering violently left in front of the neon goal post, ending the Vikings’ season. Three years later, Blair Walsh is unemployed.
Of course, such anecdotes about poor kicking can be misleading. Kickers are actually getting reliably better. As a whole, they are consistent at hitting field goals. From under 29 yards, they hit virtually 100 percent. Between 40 and 49 yards, they convert at about 75 percent. This is not bad at all considering 49 yards is a really, really far distance to kick an oblong balloon of leather through the air while wearing an awkward plastic orb on your head (and a cup). But, a few seasons ago, the NFL moved the extra point after the touchdown back to the 15-yard line. The NFL made the change to add excitement to its most predictable play. Teams are more likely to go for a two-point conversion (that is, run a normal play from the two-yard line) in poor conditions if kicking the extra point is less of a chip shot and worth half as much.
But why is the extra point worth keeping around anyway? When I was playing pickup football in elementary school, we counted each touchdown as seven points, not six. No field goal needed. It is both unnecessary and boring to kick extra points. People only care about extra points when kickers miss them, so it’s silly to throw a veneer of drama on the practice just to keep its relevance afloat.
But I don’t want to be amicable. I want to burn it all down.
There is no team-specific scheme that kickers must fit. It seems like you pick one off of the streets and pray that it works out. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of good kickers available. Just last week, the Atlanta Falcons signed an Italian kicker named Giorgio Tavecchio after their ultra-reliable kicker, Matt Bryant, injured his hamstring. In succession, Tavecchio converted on a 40-yarder, a 50-yarder and 56-yarder. Meanwhile, kickers who earned contracts prior to the season starting have cost their team dearly this season. In week six, Mason Crosby went one for five on kicks in a game that the Packers lost by eight points to their division rival Lions. If he had converted on kicks that he has made routinely in his career, the Packers would have won. The woes of Zane Gonzalez, the Browns’ kicker, cost his team so much that Browns fans held mock tryouts in the streets of Cleveland. The club released Gonzalez after he made a shockingly low 40 percent of his field goals on the season.
What place do kickers have in the NFL? Who wants to watch a league in which 40-year-olds are signing multi-year, multimillion dollar contracts? Three cheers for ageism! And who decided that one fleeting battle between a man’s leg, the wind and two neon vertical bars should count for 50 percent as much as the excitement and drama of team-on-team combat for yardage? Can you say “Napoleon Complex?”
Kicker rant bonus round: Kickers have some of the most self-defeating names in sports; Ryan Succop, Bryan Scoobee, Mike Badgley, Randy Bullock? If people actually cared about kickers, we’d be witnessing one of the great pun eras in sports-writing history.
Kicking is perfunctory and dated. If you removed the kickoff (which is the game’s most dangerous play), took out field goal and made touchdowns worth seven points, would the essential drama of the game be sacrificed? Not at all. Games would be shorter, and offensives would be more likely to go for it on fourth down instead of punting.
Here’s the answer to this bureaucratic mess: Remove the kicker from football. Football fans of America, rejoice. Oh yeah, and punters, we’re coming for you, too. (Except for you, Marquette King. You’re cool.)