Commentary

Kickers are reaching new heights

Even someone who dislikes their importance must admit: These guys are good

Originally Published: October 25, 2011
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

I don't hate kickers. I really don't. Promise.

I have, however, always maintained that place-kicking represents a flaw in the game of football. It has always seemed so out of place that so many games, in such a violent sport, end up being decided in the end by a player who never blocks or tackles -- the Texans' Neil Rackers' hit on Titans returner Marc Mariani on Sunday notwithstanding -- kicking a ball between uprights.

I mean, who came up with this idea in the first place?

For 60 minutes, some of the most impressive physical specimens our society can run into each other as hard as they can and often risk life and limb, only to have a guy who doesn't look like the rest of them and really doesn't fit in decide their fate? That's like having a 5-foot-1 guy who didn't play at all for 47 minutes come onto the court in the final seconds of an NBA game to determine the outcome of the game with a foul shot. Or maybe a 3-pointer. Either way, the concept is clearly ridiculous.

It is nothing personal. In fact, I tended to be friendly with most of the kickers I played with and have a tremendous amount of respect for how difficult their job is and how good they are at it. But that doesn't mean I think it should be such an important part of the game, especially at the highest level in the NFL.

With that rather sizable caveat out of the way, I must admit that these guys have become so good that I am in awe. It feels now like any kick under 50 yards is a gimme at this point. Even kicks over 50 yards seem to be made on an increasingly frequent basis. I'm not the only one who is noticing.

"Does it seem like FG kickers are hitting FGs from further and with more accuracy than ever?" tweeted Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston on Monday night. Why yes, Eric, it certainly does. It's because they are.

And it wasn't just Monday night, though Jags kicker Josh Scobee's four-field goal performance -- including three from more than 50 yards -- during the Jags' 12-7 victory over the Ravens was just the latest and most high-profile example of what is taking place in the NFL this year. Five kickers with at least ten attempts are perfect thus far this year. It's even more impressive when you consider that the group is not exactly made up of a bunch of Pro Bowl kickers.

In fact, the game I called Sunday for Sports USA Radio between the Chargers and Jets featured a pair of journeyman kickers, Nick Folk and Nick Novak, that were competing with one another in Jets training camp. Neither has missed a kick yet this year.

Think about that for a second. Two kickers considered questionable enough that they had to compete for a job in training camp have yet to miss, despite the fact that they have each attempted at least 10 field goals.

Kicking an oblong ball off the ground through goalposts is not exactly easy. In fact, it is exceedingly difficult. Add about 80,000 screaming people, millions more watching on TV -- oh yeah, and 11 angry men trying to do whatever they possibly can to get a finger on that ball (and you) -- and it becomes much, much harder. If you miss, you are letting down the other 52 men in the locker room, all the coaches and an entire city and region. If you miss a couple of times, you might be looking for a new line of work. Tomorrow.

It's not just the five kickers who haven't missed yet, either. Young Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is 17-of-18 and has made 16 straight, and old Lions kicker Jason Hanson is 16-of-17 -- his only miss was more than 50 yards. Everyone in between those two seems to be doing well, also.

These days, when a kicker isn't automatic from inside 50 in a game, the way Eagles rookie Alex Henery was in missing several field goals against the Niners, it can completely derail a team this is expecting points in those situations.

Though I'll keep lamenting their place in the game, and their growing importance, I must admit: These guys are good.

From the inbox

Q: Who was the best offensive tackle, when healthy and in his prime, in the NFL in the past 20 years? Stephen from DeKalb, Ill.

A.Walter Jones. There are other guys like Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace who were excellent as well. But I always believed, and I know a lot of other linemen in the league did as well, that Jones was a notch above both of them, especially in the run game. Unfortunately, because he never played on a Super Bowl champion and didn't play in prime time a lot, I'm not sure he ever really got the credit he deserves. And since you said "when healthy and in his prime," I'll add that I was a huge Tony Boselli fan. He played the game with an edge that I loved. It is a shame his shoulders were so bad and he had to retire early.

Q: How are team captains chosen each season? I've noticed that some big-name free agents seem to step into the role before playing much (if at all) with their new teams. Is it a case of the players' reputations preceding them, or are the new teammates voting them as captains based on expectations?

Zach from Franklin, Ohio

A. It really varies from team to team. Usually there is a player vote, but sometimes they are just appointed. Most players will tell you that they believe the net result is actually the same either way, because they often believe that the votes are rigged for certain players anyway. This is especially true when you see a young quarterback or some other new player "voted" by his teammates as captain. You have a right to be highly skeptical.

Q: Mike Vick is a left-handed quarterback. Wouldn't it make sense for the Eagles to make Jason Peters the RT to protect Vick's blindside?

Allan from Lethbridge, Alberta

A. This is a bit of a misnomer. Most elite tackles are put on the left side not to protect the quarterback's blind side but rather to block the other team's best rusher. Many of the best rushers in the league come from the left side because there are so many right-handed quarterbacks and that gives them the best chance to get a strip sack, or at least get to the quarterback without his seeing them. So it is more of a matchup thing than actually protecting the quarterback's blind side.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.