Commentary

Teeing off on kickers

Originally Published: January 31, 2013
By Skip Bayless | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeDavid Akers
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesDavid Akers of the 49ers has had an off year, but the Super Bowl could come down to his execution in the clutch.

This shapes up to be the hardest-hitting Super Bowl ever. Here come two teams who pride themselves on imposing steel wills on foes. So it's all-too-possible gifted warriors will battle their guts out for nearly 60 minutes … only to watch a player who doesn't actually play football trot onto the field and decide the outcome.

Yes, the favored San Francisco 49ers' most important player very well could be kicker David Akers, whose psyche now resembles Cajun gumbo.

And Ray Lewis' nearly legendary "Last Ride" could ride on the mental toughness of an undrafted rookie kicker named Justin Tucker.

This, NFL fans, is lunacy.

This has been a career-long pet peeve of mine. Why do we blindly accept that the great game of football is often decided by a goofily gimmicky kick between two poles? These kicks count three points? They're attempted by one of the lowest paid members of the team? These kickers sometimes go from clutch to basket case after just a couple of misses?

Wake up, people. This is madness.

Field goal kicking is wildly exciting for all the wrong reasons. We regularly interrupt games to go for a ride on the equivalent of Disney's stomach-in-throat Tower of Terror. The scariest words for any fan are "wide right" or "wide left." Or, in the case of Buffalo Bills fans, "Scott Norwood."

This is why I have long proposed a change that will never, ever happen because it makes too much sense. Give place-kicking the boot.

That's right, eliminate it. Force supremely talented offensive players to keep doing what they do best: Make first downs. Fourth-and-5 at the opponent's 25? You have to GO FOR IT. And you keep going for it until you score six points or you're stopped. If you score a touchdown, you always go for the far more exciting two-point conversion.

You say too many games would turn into low-scoring defensive turnoffs? Not if the usual conservative field goal chess matches turned into touchdown shootouts. Who's to say Tom Brady wouldn't have gone on to win those three rings with his arm instead of Adam Vinatieri's leg?

And if you don't like your fourth-down odds, you can always punt. No, I would not take the foot completely out of football. I'd keep punting, which doesn't directly impact the scoreboard the way field goals do. Punting is an underrated art because of the strategy, skill and athleticism involved. Punters must catch bullet snaps that sometimes bounce or test their verticals. Then they must aim away from dangerous returners or pierce the wind with low spirals or drop punts into "coffin corners" or stick them nose-first like majestic 2-irons near the goal line.

Kickoffs? Gone, which would eliminate the game's most dangerous high-speed collisions. Offenses would always start at, say, their 25. "Onside kicks" could become, as Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano suggests, fourth-and-15 from your 30-yard line.

Just let great football players decide games by, you know, playing football.

Once upon a time, kickers actually were players. Lou "The Toe" Groza started at left tackle and played some defensive line while turning into the first straight-on place-kicking star, for the Cleveland Browns. Quarterback George Blanda led the NFL in completions once and the AFL three times while kicking field goals and extra points.

[+] EnlargeJustin Tucker
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsJustin Tucker is one of the lowest paid Ravens, but it may fall to him to win the Super Bowl.
Then, in 1961, it happened. Pete Gogolak, born in Budapest, drew upon his European soccer background to launch the first soccer-style field goal in college football, a 41-yarder for Cornell, kicking open Pandora's box. Gogolak approached the ball from an angle and made contact with his instep instead of his toes. Alas, the kicker-as-specialist was born. Gogolak launched a parade of soccer refugees who could outkick Groza or Blanda but who had no chance of making the team at any position. See: Garo Yepremian's hilariously disastrous "pass" in Super Bowl VII.

The AFL's Buffalo Bills signed Gogolak in 1964, obviously angering the football gods. The NFL's Bills paid with eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV, trailing the New York Giants 20-19. In trotted Norwood, who missed a 47-yarder, the historically infamous Wide Right.

Which brings us to Akers, who lately and shockingly has turned into Ache-ers for 49ers fans. Just last season, Akers set the NFL's single-season record for field goals, with 44. In this season's opener at Green Bay, Akers tied the NFL record with a 63-yarder. Yet suddenly Akers looks as if he has two left feet. He has missed eight of his past 20 field goals, including his only attempt in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta.

"He got a couple blocked," said Akers' friend, Jay Feely, who was once parodied on "Saturday Night Live" after his three missed field goals cost the Giants a game in Seattle. "Blocks aren't your fault but they can have a negative impact, and he started losing confidence."

Akers has battled kicker demons before. He initially failed to make three NFL teams and did a stint in NFL Europe before building confidence like a skyscraper in Philadelphia. His 31 field goals are best in Eagles playoff history. He made an NFL postseason record 19 in a row. Yet in his final Philly playoff game, at home against Green Bay, Akers missed two of three in a 21-16 loss.

Lost it, found it, lost it. Akers, fragile of psyche, basically views his job the way former Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover did: "It's three seconds of hell."

For teammates, too. I've never talked to a position player who liked field goal kicking playing such a crucial role in football.

Eliminate it.

Feely, who kicks for the Arizona Cardinals, was on the other sideline during the 49ers' final regular-season game and watched Akers kick "the two worst field goals I've ever seen him kick. He was just slapping at the ball. I saw him at halftime and said, 'Hey, stop thinking and just KICK. Just trust your athletic ability and your muscle memory and let it rip.'"

Yet kickers sometimes lose it completely, the way golfers do. See: David Duval. It's possible Akers is unfixable.

So whom did 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh recently sign to compete with Akers and help snap him out of his slump? Billy Cundiff, who was eventually cut by the Ravens after missing a mere 32-yarder, wide left, that cost his teammates a shot at overtime on the road against the New England Patriots in last year's AFC title game.

Absolute madness.

The unquestioned evolution of America's most popular sport has created the most pressurized single moment in all of sports, executed (so to speak) by a football subspecies that rarely even practices with the team.

(My friend Feely and I bonded six years ago after I outraged him by dismissing kickers as "unathletic little guys." Feely soon made me eat those words by beating me in a 40-yard dash -- the Giants once timed him at 4.6 seconds, he's a scratch golfer and was a soccer star in high school. He, Akers and Justin Tucker -- a receiver and defensive back at Texas powerhouse Austin Westlake High -- lead the new breed of athletic kickers. Yet even though Feely claims Tom Coughlin once told him he was the Giants' backup backup safety, obviously none of these guys could make it as anything but a kicker. I would hate for Feely to lose his job, but I still hate his job.)

Here's the kicker to this insanity: NFL teams won't spend much money and rarely spend high draft picks on what arguably can be the second most valuable player to the quarterback. As a GM once told me: "You can't trust 'em enough to invest in 'em."

The first "big" free-agent deal awarded a kicker, in 2005, was what it cost Indianapolis to pry Vinatieri away from the Patriots: $3.5 million to sign and $2.5 million a year for three years. Laughably little. As much as I despise kicking, I would have outbid the Colts for the most stable, normal kicker I've ever talked to and by far the most consistently clutch ever. Kickers make or break seasons.

Yet this season's average kicker salary is an astonishingly low $1.97 million. Ready for this? Tucker, who nailed the 47-yarder that eliminated Peyton Manning in Denver in overtime, rakes in all of $390,000.

Tucker had a rock-solid rookie year -- making 30 of 33 field goals, including 4-of-4 from 50-plus yards. Yet in the third game, at home against New England, what if his last-second chip shot had been correctly called by the replacement ref? On replays it sure looked wide right. How permanently would his psyche have been damaged if his 27-yarder had lost instead of won that game?

The name of one of Tucker's favorite movies describes many kickers: "American Psycho."

Please, America, stand up and support me on this. At least let's outlaw field goals in the final two minutes or five minutes or in fourth quarters. Better still, give 'em the permanent boot. I dread watching Akers go Norwood.

Skip Bayless

First Take host
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on First Take.