Way back in 1996, when Adam Vinatieri entered the NFL, a practice session for kickers was a relative breeze. It included an attempt or two in the 20-yard range, a few in the 30's and 40's and -- if the coach was feeling frisky -- a moonshot from beyond 50 yards.
This summer, on a day I visited with Vinatieri at the Indianapolis Colts' training camp, things were a bit different.
"If I were to go back and look at all of my camp distances," Vinatieri said, "I bet I'd find only a couple that were in the 30's. Right away, we jump back to 40-plus and work back. If I have seven kicks, three of them will be from beyond 50. We'll have one from 50, one from 55 and yesterday I hit one from 60. It was 50, 55 and 60 versus the days of hitting 30-yarders. You have to be able to hit that long ball to play in this league now."
Football has transformed during Vinatieri's 18-year career, and not just in the explosive rise of passing offense. There has also been a dramatic rise in kicking accuracy, especially from long distances. As recently as five years ago, 50-plus yard attempts were a 50-50 proposition. In 2013, NFL place-kickers converted 67.1 percent of them, and the rate has risen to nearly 72 percent during the first quarter of 2014.
In other words, place-kickers are converting 50-yard attempts at a higher rate than quarterbacks are completing passes.
"Even 10 years ago, a 50-yarder was a very big deal," Cincinnati Bengals place-kicker Mike Nugent said. "A guy would hit a 50-yarder and it was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's a big thing.' ... But now, you just expect it. The 50-yarder isn't, 'I hope it goes in.' It's more expected now."
Go back to 1996, when Vinatieri was beginning his career with the New England Patriots. That season, the 30-team NFL attempted a combined 58 field goals from 50 yards or beyond. This season, the league's 32 teams have set a pace to nearly triple that figure; through four weeks, they have already attempted 32 from at least 50 yards.
OK, so we know the situation. Place-kickers are far more accurate, and coaches much more confident, from distances once considered bleak. Now, let's start the process of understanding why.
As part of my summer camp tour, I quizzed kickers about how their profession got so good so fast. Why is the NFL scrambling for ways to make it more difficult, via longer extra points? And why did a Super Bowl-winning coach get rewarded for playing for a 61-yard game-winning field goal last season? (See Harbaugh, John, Week 15 of the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season.)
Theories revolved around three areas: Youth emphasis, honed techniques and physical growth. We're not going to author the definitive study on this evolution today, but let's at least take a quick sample of each idea:
Colts punter/kicker Pat McAfee: "A big thing now is that you get a chance to go to the kicking camps that happen across the globe. Parents are sending their kids to them because there's less danger [kicking rather than playing another position] and there's a chance of getting a scholarship. So you have people trying to get into these positions. Whenever you have kids starting earlier, working harder, younger, you're going to get better."
Green Bay Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby: "It comes down to specialized training. When I first started kicking, it was just kind of line up, get in a spot you feel comfortable in, maybe watch what some of the guys did in the NFL or college. But now it's like golf. Everyone is a little bit different and you have to kind of own that, but guys are realizing that they need to repeat the same thing every time. Take your steps back, your steps over and be in a position that is repeatable every time. Every time you get in your set up, you must feel comfortable that you're going to execute my kick."
Nugent: "It's funny. I could attribute it to the same thing we talk about with other positions. What's a nose tackle today compared to a nose tackle in, say, the '80s? He's bigger and stronger. That's across the board."
Where will this take the game? Can the 60-plus-yard kick, attempted four times last season and eight in 2012, become the new 50? Rules returning the ball to opponents at the spot of a kick following a miss might discourage coaches, but accuracy over time could shift convention.
"Everything is moving back," McAfee said. "It used to be that a 40-yarder was a long one. Now, if you're missing 40-yarders, you're not even in the Arena League. So with more practice and more technique perfection, it could happen."
At this rate, of course, we'll be asking in a few years if 70 could be the new 60.