Golden age for NFL kickers
Football is undergoing its second great transformation in the art of what gave the sport its name: Putting a foot on the ball.
In the mid 1960s, Pete Gogolak and his brother Charlie, the first kicker drafted in the first round, became pro football's first soccer-style kickers. The innovation swept through the game, instantly raising field-goal accuracy rates and causing countless conventional-style kickers to throw their heavy, square-toed shoes into the nearest garbage can.
Now, placekicking is undergoing yet another makeover. It's the dawning of the Super Leg era, one in which every field goal is expected to be made, no matter the distance, the time on the clock or the score.
“Guys certainly are making some big kicks, some long kicks,” Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham said. “Just about anybody in the league, from 60 (yards), you have a chance to make a field goal.”
It wasn't all that long ago that a field-goal attempt beyond 52 or 53 yards, especially on a grass field, was almost unheard-of except during dire circumstances. Today, kicks in the 54- to 56-yard range and beyond are commonplace.
Rams kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein hit from 58 and 60 in the same game and barely missed a potential game-winning 66-yarder. Even as the distances get greater, field-goal accuracy is up a staggering 5 percent since last season, the kind of quantum leap that's seldom seen in a major pro sport.
NFL kickers are converting at an 87.7 percent rate (370 of 422), up from 82.9 percent (838 of 1011) in 2011.
NFL Network analyst Charles Davis credits the upsurge to athletes who once gravitated to skill positions such as quarterback and wide receiver now being content to make their living as kickers.
“I think kickers are more athletic than they have ever been,” Davis said. “If you were bored and went through all the media guides and checked on the background of the kickers now, I think you would find all of them were very good athletes in high school.”
A few decades ago, kickers often were position players who kicked on the side.
As late as 1963, NFL kickers made less than half of their attempts (49.6 percent), and even that was an upgrade from the 35.2 percent of 1942.
The success rate began climbing substantially when other soccer-style kickers such as Jan Stenerud followed the Gogolaks; Stenerud was hitting at 70 percent when straight-on kickers were averaging about 50 percent.
While 63 yards remains the NFL record, it's one that could be broken this season. And the unheard-of — a 70-yard field goal — might not be that far away.
“I've made them from 70 in practice,” said Suisham, who is 14 of 15 with his only miss coming on a 54-yarder in Tennessee.
Suisham's 74.2 percent rate (23 of 31) was among the league's lowest in 2011, but not that long ago it would have been about the norm. League-wide accuracy is up 10 percent from 10 years ago, when kickers were at 77.5 percent (737 of 951).
“Your snapping and holding, your entire operation, has become efficient,” Suisham said. “Sometimes, the fields are a lot better than they used to be.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.