IN 1983 two UNLV professors explored a pressing academic subject: the NFL placekicker. The kicker, they reported in the journal Qualitative Sociology, was a classic example of German sociologist Georg Simmel's "stranger," an outsider central to a group. Tiny, foreign and eccentric, the kicker wasn't "properly socialized" to the game. He was ignored by coaches and lampooned by writers. And yet the team depended on him. "The kicker is despised but must be tolerated," the academics wrote. For support they quoted interdisciplinary scholar Alex Karras (Lions lineman, Monday Night Football sideman, Mongo in Blazing Saddles): "I can't stand those little jerks."
A quarter century later, it's time to consign the single-bar-facemask, I-keek-a-touchdown caricature of the kicker to the ash bin of football history. The average NFL kicker today goes 6 feet, 204—one inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than when UNLV enlightened the academy. While four of the 37 kickers currently on active rosters were born abroad, one of them is Canadian, which doesn't count, and the other three went to high school in the U.S. With an average salary of about $1.2 million, placekickers aren't even the lowest-paid NFL players anymore.
Full disclosure: I masqueraded as a kicker with the Broncos in 2006. But I state the following as a reporter. No other skill in professional team sports has improved in recent decades as dramatically as placekicking. Not throwing a football, not hitting a baseball, certainly not (clang) shooting a basketball. "Everything we do is so much better," says NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, who scoured Europe for kickers as a player personnel executive for the Cowboys in the 1970s, "but the kicking thing is just phenomenal."
Kickers are like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: indomitable. After they made a record 63.1% of field goal attempts in 1973, the NFL moved the goalposts from the goal line to the rear of the end zone. 'Tis but a scratch! Success climbed above 75% by 1994, so the league put the ball after a miss at the spot of the kick instead of the line of scrimmage. Just a flesh wound! After bagging 79.6% in 1998, kickers were forced to boot new, rock-hard balls. I'll do ya for that! The conversion rate has increased in each of the last six years, to a record 82.8% in 2007. This season, kickers have made an astounding 85.4% of field goals through Sunday—and percentages typically don't decline as the year progresses. The Black Knight always triumphs!
Yawn whenever a kicker splits the uprights? Your jaw must be sore. In 1983 NFL teams scored more than two touchdowns for every field goal. Today's ratio is 1.4 to 1, and kickers are on track to attempt more than 1,000 three-pointers in a season for the first time. From 50 yards and beyond, they've made 65.5%. "That's shocking, an amazing statistic," says Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. There's so little risk in the PAT—kickers are 588 for 590 this season—that McKay thinks it might be time to eliminate it.
Kicking ruled from the 1880s to the 1910s, but this is its golden age. Here's why:
•Superior athletes. Josh Brown of the Rams was an Oklahoma eight-man football legend and state champion high jumper in high school. The Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski was all-Mississippi in football, soccer and baseball. Eagles veteran David Akers trains in Brazilian jujitsu; he kicks footballs and ass. Kicking is an explosive movement requiring strength, balance and coordination. The better the athlete, the better the kicker.
•Early specialization and better coaching. Twenty years ago most kickers were postpubescent soccer transplants. (Brad Daluiso, 40, who didn't kick until college but had an 11-year NFL career, says that during high school football games, "I was sitting in the stands smuggling in Coors Lights.") Wannabe Vinatieris get started much sooner now. "I had a father who said, 'My son is three, but he's like a five-year-old,'" says my own kicking coach, Paul Woodside of 4th Down Sports in Springfield, Va. "I told him to come back in 10 years." Kickers learn technique—from clinics and videos—and consult personal gurus from an early age. While only one NFL franchise (the Dolphins) has a full-time coach, every team recognizes the importance of kicking. That wasn't always the case. Pete Gogolak, who broke football's soccer-style barrier in 1964, says he was lucky to work with the field goal unit once a week. When he suggested rigging up a net to practice on the sideline, Gogolak recalls, "they thought I was crazy."
•Action-specific training. Like golfers, kickers use software to analyze their swings. This past off-season Nate Kaeding of the Chargers underwent a full-body analysis at a sports-performance center in Indianapolis. The verdict: His left, nonkicking glute needed strengthening. "I look at kicking in an athletic paradigm rather than as some quirky skill," Kaeding says.
•Better fields, snappers and holders. Jan Stenerud, 65, the only full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame, blames bumpy, rutted fields in part for his modest 66.8% career field goal rate. Today's synthetic turfs are flawless. Plus, every team has a long snapper who does little or nothing else, and holders are the most skilled performers, not the most-available benchwarmers. "It's so efficient now," the Ravens' 18-year veteran Matt Stover says.
How much better can kickers get? For starters, a new longest field goal—the current record of 63 yards was set by stub-footed Tom Dempsey in 1970 and tied by Jason Elam in 1998—is imminent. Coaches are more willing to try from downtown, and more kickers than ever have the leg. Last year the Raiders' 250-pound Sebastian Janikowski pinged the middle of the right upright from 64 yards. Against the Chargers in September he attempted one from 76 yards. "The percentage was low, but it was possible," Janikowski said.
Lousy weather, botched snaps and missed blocks, not to mention plain old shanked kicks, will always stand in the way of perfection. But these days anything seems possible. The Falcons' McKay, who is cochair of the NFL's competition committee, says the league doesn't want to make field goals harder—narrowing the goalposts would be one option—because teams earn the right to points by getting into scoring position. Inevitably, though, the rule makers will again try to thwart the Black Knights. If history is any guide, it'll be just another flesh wound.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 170-pound, 43-year-old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL.
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Yawn when a guy splits the uprights? YOUR JAW MUST BE SORE.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER