Rackers having historic season

In a half-season defined by inconsistencies and instability, and in which very little has followed the punditry of training camp prognostications, at least a few elements of the game have held form.

Among them: More than one-quarter of the games contested through the first eight weeks of this 2005 season, 30 of 116 games, or 25.9 percent, were decided by three or fewer points. That is consistent with the recent trend, in which more than 23 percent of all games since 1999 had a differential of three or fewer points. Not surprisingly in such a taut environment, place-kickers have continued to take on critical importance.

And they have, in many instances and under often withering pressure with the outcomes of games more than just a footnote for them, performed extraordinarily well.

"It's simply a part of the game now," allowed San Francisco kicker Joe Nedney, whose five field goals accounted for all the 49ers' scoring in last week's 15-10 upset victory over Tampa Bay. "You turn on SportsCenter on Sunday night and just expect to see [a compilation] of big field goals. You're probably not going to be very successful [as a team] without a great kicker. And you're not going to be very successful as a kicker unless you can go out and make the big kicks. Because the bottom line is, with the way games are anymore, you're definitely going to get opportunities."

No matter the situation -- close games, one-sided affairs, short kicks or long field goal attempts -- kickers definitely are getting more chances in 2005 than in just about any other season in the modern history of the league.

Just for kicks, consider these numbers: Through the first eight weeks, there have been 442 field goal tries, or an average of 3.8 attempts per game. That represents the fifth-most field goal tries through the first 116 games of a season since 1978. If the current pace holds through the entire schedule, the 3.8 field goal attempts per game would be the most since the league averaged 3.87 attempts in 2001. There have been just five seasons since the 1970 merger in which the average field goal attempts per game topped 3.8, the record being 3.98 tries per game in 1995.

Projecting the current prolific pace of field goal tries through an entire season, there would be 975 attempts for 2005. There were just 870 attempts in 2004, the fewest under the current 256-game schedule and the lowest since 1994, when the schedule was 224 games.

Led by Neil Rackers of Arizona, who has been perfect on his 22 field goal attempts as one of the few bright spots for the Cardinals, kickers have converted at an 80.5 percent rate. That mark is actually down --though not by much -- from last season, when the leaguewide conversion rate was a record 80.8 percent. If the current field goal conversion rate holds, it would be the second-best in NFL history and would mark just the third time since the merger that the aggregate success mark topped 80 percent.

Certainly, the kicker carousel didn't spin as wildly this spring as in recent offseasons. Only eight franchises changed kickers in the offseason after the league had averaged nearly 10 switches the previous five years. And though it seems the first half of the season has been a kind of kicker revolving door, only four franchises have made changes since the start of this season, and all but one of those was because of injury.

The success this season is even more remarkable considering that some of the premier kickers in the league aren't getting many opportunities, have been injured or are having subpar years. Mike Vanderjagt of Indianapolis, the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, has a mere eight attempts in seven games. Three-time Pro Bowl performer David Akers of Philadelphia has been sidelined for a month by a torn hamstring. John Kasay of Carolina, Denver's Jason Elam and Adam Vinatieri of New England, who provided the winning field goal in two of the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories, all have conversion rates of under 70 percent.

Of course, Rackers has more than compensated for those uncharacteristic drop-offs.

But Rackers, who is on pace for a mind-boggling 50 field goals -- the single-season record, 39, is shared by Olindo Mare of Miami (1999) and St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins (2003) -- isn't the only kicker having a huge season. Including all 26 kickers with at least 10 attempts, 19 have converted at least 75 percent of their tries.

Of the dozen kickers who have registered at least 15 attempts to date, six have converted 80 percent or more of their tries and four of those have conversion rates of better than 85 percent. In addition to Rackers, who also leads the NFL in touchbacks on kickoffs (20), Phil Dawson of Cleveland (13-for-13) and Atlanta's Todd Peterson (10-for-10) have yet to miss this year. The New York Giants' Jay Feely has missed just once in 17 tries, for a 94.1 conversion rate, particularly impressive given that he spent the first three seasons of his career kicking in a domed stadium for home games. At Giants Stadium, he now faces some of the fiercest and trickiest wind currents of any league venue.

"Obviously, there are a lot of [kickers] who have found that comfort zone that we all talk about," said Rackers, who has converted 84.1 percent of his field goal tries since signing with the Cardinals midway through the 2003 season, after Cincinnati dumped him in favor of Shayne Graham. "Once you're there, man, you don't ever want to leave."

A six-year veteran, and playing in the final year of his contract, Rackers is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. If he chooses to leave the Valley of the Sun, he might be one of the most coveted players in the market. The free-agent pool for 2006 already is projected to be one of the leanest in recent years, and the increased profile for kickers is certain to enhance Rackers' value.

At 29, Rackers figures to have several productive seasons left, and he has become money in the bank on field goal attempts and a force on kickoffs, as well. He led the NFL in touchbacks in 2004, and his 20 this season is eight better than the next closest kicker. In fact, Rackers has accounted for nearly 15 percent of the league total of 149 touchbacks in the first six weeks. Although the Cardinals' increasing ineptitude means Rackers hasn't had to perform in the crucible some kickers face because they play for better teams and have to convert more meaningful kicks, this year nonetheless has demonstrated his mettle.

His 73 points represent 57.4 percent of the Arizona scoring, by far the highest quotient in the league. Rackers has made four or more field goals in three of seven games this season and converted six in the game against San Francisco in Mexico City on Oct. 2.

"You kind of run out of superlatives," acknowledged Arizona punter Scott Player, who is Rackers' holder on placement attempts. "What he's done is huge."

Then again, and taking nothing away from Rackers' performance, big numbers dominate in the kicker statistics this season. For instance, there have been 28 games in which teams combined for four field goal tries, 20 contests with five attempts, eight games with six, seven with seven and two in which the teams combined for eight attempts. Forty-three games, more than one-third of the contests played to date, have featured four or more conversions, and there have been 18 games with at least five field goals made.

Rackers' six field goals against the 49ers is the NFL's gaudiest performance so far, but there have been three occasions in which kickers -- Feely of the Giants, the 49ers' Nedney and Rian Lindell of Buffalo -- converted five field goals.

Said Feely, who converted five of six tries in the Giants' 36-0 romp over Washington last week: "Guys are getting a lot of kicks and making a lot of kicks."

One reason for the increase in field goal opportunities this year -- at the current rate, there would be 105 more attempts in 2005 than last season, a jump of 12 percent -- is the dip in red-zone efficiency. Offenses actually are scoring slightly more in the red zone in the first eight weeks of this season, 84.4 percent of the time compared with 82.7 percent at the same point last year, but more of the points are coming on field goals. This year, 38.4 percent of all red zone scores have come on field goals. Through the first eight weeks of the 2004 season, the rate was 35.0 percent. There are 13 more red-zone field goals at this point of the season than there were in the first eight weeks in 2004.

To suggest that red-zone inertia is the primary reason for the surge in field goals would be to diminish what the league's kickers have achieved in the first half of the season, however. After all, kickers aren't just converting red-zone chip shots.

The average field goal conversion in the first eight weeks was for 35.6 yards. The average miss was 43.5 yards, and less than 25 percent of the miscues leaguewide, 21 of 86 misses, were from under 40 yards. Rackers, who has 11 conversions of 40 yards or more and has three of 50-plus yards, has averaged 38.8 yards on his field goal successes.

"People are just 'zoned in' and are kicking the heck out of the ball," said Feely, signed by the Giants as a free agent in the spring after the team struggled at the kicker position the past few years. "You just don't see a lot of big misses."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.