Have Field Goal Kickers Improved?

Larry Fitzgerald catches TD at 2009 Pro Bowl.jpg

Last weekend Justin Tucker kicked the longest field goal in NFL history. He also claimed that the best NFL kickers regularly kick even longer ones in practice. This got me thinking about the evolution of NFL kicking and the phenomena of resistance to change.

Consider an example. I grew up in St. Louis and our NFL team then was the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals. From 1963 to 1978 our kicker was Jim Bakken. Bakken was a 4-time pro-bowler and 2-time first-team all-pro, one of the best kickers of his era. ( You can see all his stats here.) Note that Bakken made only 63% of his field goals for his career from all distances; about 43% from 40-49 yards; and was 1 for 21 from 50 yards or more. (The kick he made was most likely a 51 yarder with a gale behind him!) Bakken also missed 19 extra points in his career in 553 attempts. (This is when an extra point was from 20 yards.) Compare this to the stats for kickers in the NFL last year.

As you can see today about 1/2 the kickers made over 90% of their field goals and almost all the rest made over 80%. Even in the 40-49 yard range, most kickers missed very few if any attempts. And in the last year that extra points were from 20 yards like Bakken kicked them, there were 1183 extra points attempts and 5 misses. They made 99.6%!

Today kickers are better for many reasons, but mostly because they kick the ball with their instep. Bakken, like most kickers of his era, kicked with his toe! When the first soccer-style kickers came along, they were viewed with suspicion. Who would kick a ball with their instep instead of their toe? Wow, that’s radical! That’s what I mean, resistance to change. Humans prefer stasis to dynamism; they are always stuck in the past.

Now to finish my story. In 1974 the St. Louis (football) Cardinals gave a tryout to a star soccer player from St. Louis University and my grade school named Pat Leahy. (Leahy was in my brother’s grade school class and I used to see him kicking a soccer ball on my school’s athletictic field.) Naturally, the Cardinals kept Bakken and cut Leahy—heck Leahy didn’t kick with his toe!

Leahy went on to become the kicker for the Jets from 1974 to 1991, finishing his career 3rd  at the time on the all-time scoring list in the NFL with 1470 points. (He has since been passed by multiple players.) Actually, Leahy wasn’t a great kicker by today’s standards, but he was a LOT better than Bakken. So why did the Cardinals chose a toe over a whole foot?

Well, kicking a football with your instep just seemed weird, whereas kicking inaccurately with your toe was normal. That’s just what we do. Why would you use your much wider whole foot? That just isn’t traditional.

That’s what I mean, resistance to change. It’s everywhere. And, on a serious note, we’ll only survive at all if we adapt and change.

(Note. This post originally appeared on February 12, 2014.)

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