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Kick Start

With placekickers deadlier and defenses stingier, NFL games are becoming field goal duels

On Oct. 3 New Orleans Saint quarterback Wade Wilson found himself at the Los Angeles Ram 30-yard line, peering into a seven-defensive-back alignment. Wilson threw the ball toward wideout Patrick Newman at the goal line, and three defenders converged on the spot where the ball and Newman would meet. Any of the three could have made the play, and sure enough, one of the Rams tipped the ball away—right into Newman's hands, for a touchdown.

The play illuminated an important truth about this season: Once you get your offense within field goal range, you have to be awfully lucky to score a touchdown, particularly in the air. Field goal kickers have gotten to be so accurate that defenses are all but conceding the three points once they find themselves backed up to their own 20-yard line. Onto the field trot as many as seven defensive backs who take up positions in zones that are virtually impenetrable. The result is that fans are seeing a brand of football as unsatisfying as nouvelle cuisine at a postseason awards banquet.

Consider that in 224 games played in the NFL in 1989, only once did a winning team fail to score a touchdown. In the first three weekends of this season the San Diego Chargers won two games without scoring a touchdown, 18-13 over the Seattle Seahawks and 18-17 over the Houston Oilers; in the first month four other games were won by teams that did not make it into the end zone. Only once before in the league's history have there been more than six no-TD wins in a season (in '88 there were nine such games), and the '93 season is not even two months old. On Sunday six field goals were kicked in the Kansas City Chiefs' 17-15 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and the only touchdown scored in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 16-3 yawner over the Chargers was on a fumble recovery.

Over the past 30 years the ratio of touchdowns to field goals in the NFL has gone from 3 to 1 to just over 1 to 1. The league is on a pace to average more than three field goals a game this season—which would be a first—as kickers become increasingly unerring: Through the season's first six weeks field goal kickers were converting 80% of their attempts. More significant, the number of touchdowns scored from within the red zone (inside the 20) has declined by 8% since 1988, while field goals in the red zone are up more than 11%.

Even if it means that football is finally living up to its name, the emergence of the field goal as the dominant offensive weapon strikes some observers as bad for the game. Steps should be taken, it is argued, to give some of the edge back to the offense so that touchdowns inside the red zone don't become even more of an endangered species than they are already. One suggestion: Ban zone defenses inside the 20. "That's stupid," Indianapolis offensive tackle Will Wolford says. "How would you enforce that? Officials have enough to look for already. Anyway, what you're seeing is a fluky trend that I think is going to go away."

Wolford's view is widely shared around the league. Last week SI arranged a conference call in which five players were asked to muse on the field goal explosion and the touchdown drought. Kansas City Chief kicker Nick Lowery, Buffalo Bill quarterback Jim Kelly and New York Jet safety Ronnie Lott joined in from their homes. Dallas Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin joined in from his agent's office. San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young contributed his thoughts—this is the '90s, folks—via car phone, while driving down U.S. 101. Their unanimous conclusion: Leave the game alone because, over time, it will regulate itself.

SI: Isn't it true that the red zone is becoming the dead zone for the offense?

IRVIN: Hey, it's not just the red zone. It's all over the field. Defenses are just sitting back and saying, "Don't give up the big play. Don't make the big mistake. Don't let the wideout get behind you."

YOUNG: It's not the dead zone to us. I don't care how they play defense in the red zone. We've actually seen two-man rushes and nine men drop back, but our offensive philosophy—and I guarantee you it won't change—is that we're going to attack. We're seeing what I call the four-across: four defensive backs deep, spread across the field. Every team has done that to us. But we've scored 125 points. I don't think that's much less than we've had through five games in the past.

KELLY: I've noticed that teams are forcing opponents to score with the run, not with the pass, because of all the deep zones. If you can't run the ball near the goal line now, you're in big trouble.

SI: Dan Henning, the Detroit Lion offensive coordinator, says that the defenses are ahead of the offenses now, more than at any time that he can remember. And Jim, the Bills haven't been nearly as explosive as in the past.

KELLY: It's six weeks into the season. Geez, give us a chance. We've been in position to make big plays, and we've been moving the ball O.K. We just haven't been executing at the important times.

LOTT: I agree with Jim. It's early, and the offenses aren't as sharp as the defenses yet. I don't think this whole field goal thing is a trend yet. Give it time and this will be like any other season.

KELLY: Nick, let me ask you a question. I had to do some research for my TV show this week, and isn't it true that the number of kicks attempted is about the same, and it's just that the percentage is higher?

LOWERY: Well, attempts are up 14 percent. But you're right. The percentage that are successful is also up.

SI: Actually, kickers have made about 80 percent of their field goals through six weeks. Last year they made about 72. So the success rate is also up about eight percent. Why, Nick?

LOWERY: Well, we're the best athletes in the game, and we also work the hardest.

IRVIN: Nick, you're way off your rocker! You come in, go to a 45-minute meeting, kick the ball around a little bit and then do absolutely nothing. It's the easiest job in the world. Face it.

SI: Michael, come on. The pressure....

IRVIN: Well, there's that one moment when it's the last play of the game, and it's all on your shoulders. You miss it, and you pack your bags. It's like I told Eddie Murray when we just signed him: "Hey, fella, this is the NFC East. It's pretty tough to get across that goal line. Don't miss." When it comes down to that last play, I do agree that's a lot to put on a man.

LOWERY: The point is, kickers are better. They're getting scholarships. They're playing soccer at a younger age. And they're going to kicking camps every summer. Before our game at Tampa Bay, their kicker, Michael Husted, said to me, "You coached me at a kicking camp in New Jersey six years ago." There's this huge pool of kickers competing for the same number of jobs.

LOTT: Nick, what about the tee? When the colleges took the tee away from kickers on field goals [in 1989], was that a big factor?

LOWERY: Huge. When I first tried out for the NFL, in 1978, it took me two years to adjust because I was kicking off the ground instead of off a tee. Now college kickers are coming into the league more prepared.

SI: San Diego won its two games this year with 12 field goals and zero touchdowns, and a lot of people think that's bad. Saint kicker Morten Andersen makes sense when he says, "If quarterbacks get on a hot streak, does everybody want them to use a weighted ball? Of course not. Then why penalize kickers for being good?" Still, should there be some rule changes made that would lessen the field goal's impact?

IRVIN: NO way. If you drive the ball from your five to their 15 and stall, you still ought to be able to get three points. That's a big accomplishment, driving the length of the field. To come away with nothing would be devastating.

LOWERY: If field goals become absolutely automatic, we might see something done. But let's not rush into this after five or six weeks of one season. I don't think it's going to continue to be this efficient for the whole season. I'm something like 89 for my last 101, but I don't think anyone can expect us to make 90 percent of our field goals consistently.

LOTT: The point is, sometimes it comes down to one man having control of the game in his hands. That's the great thing about this sport. It comes down to one guy making a play to win or lose the game, and I think, even if it's a kicker, it's dramatic and it's good for the game.

SI: Let's move to the game clock. This season the league shortened the time between plays from 45 to 40 seconds to get more plays in. The number of plays is now up about six a game. But is it worth it? The Indianapolis Colts' quarterback, Jack Trudeau, says he wanted to audible out of some red-zone plays in Cincinnati because he knew they wouldn't work, but he didn't have time. And the plays failed. Ron Erhardt, the Steeler offensive coordinator, says he has to play racehorse football, not efficient football, because of the clock.

KELLY: You're asking the wrong guy. We play the no-huddle. It's no problem for us.

LOTT: I think the clock's an excuse. They'll learn to play with it, like they learn to cope with anything else.

YOUNG: Well, we have to play the game at a different pace. Early in the preseason I hated it, because playing at the pace we played last year, we just didn't have time to run the offense. Now, especially after a long pass play, it strains us to get the next play off on time. I don't know why the league did it. It's not improving offense.

IRVIN: That 40-second clock is making everybody rush and make mistakes. It's killing offensive football. Let's say we're anticipating that [seven-defensive-back] umbrella defense and make a call expecting that. Then, when we come to the line, they switch out of it. Normally Troy [Aikman] would just audible. But...tick, tick, tick...that 40-second clock is down to nothing, and we can't change. Besides that, I pride myself on being in some serious condition, but if you have pass play after pass play, not even the best athlete in the world can cope.

SI: One more thing about field goals. Doesn't it seem like coaches trust their kickers like never before, and it's changed their philosophy? Surely it affects how aggressive they are in the red zone compared with years ago. Detroit linebacker Chris Spielman says he can almost feel his coaches thinking, Don't turn the ball over down there when we've got an automatic three.

KELLY: NO doubt about it. Unless you have the hot hand down there, I think you'll be more conservative than in the past. And if it's third-and-14, I'll make sure we don't turn it over or get out of field goal position.

IRVIN: NO way. Coach [Jimmy] Johnson says, "We don't play with scared money. If we have the chance to stick someone in the throat with the knife, we go for the end zone, every time."

YOUNG: I believe you're going to lose a lot more games by settling for three instead of going for seven. If I were to go into a meeting with [offensive coordinator] Mike Shanahan right now, and we saw a team playing a four-across zone, I'd be thinking, How can we attack the edge? How can we find even a little weakness? You can't ever get to the point where you accept the field goal. In the end, what is it that people want to see when they come to a football game? They want the long bomb into the end zone! They want excitement!