If you watch the Redskins’ Graham Gano or the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff, you’ll see that their hips swivel during the windup and follow-through of their kick.
“The angled approach allows players to rotate their body segments in more than one axis, not only in one plane, and this seems to make them a bit faster,” says Eleftherios Kellis, a professor of sports science at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.
Soccer-style kickers also can decrease the dampening effect of that flexed ankle by striking the ball high up on the foot. Impacting the ball on the instep means more of the leg’s energy is transferred to the ball because the ankle doesn’t bend as much upon impact. (Shoes also absorb some of the force of impact, which is why many kickers used to kick barefoot. Improvments in shoe technology — partially combined with an aversion to pain — have virtually eliminated barefoot kicking)
But striking the ball with the laces introduces an additional complication: The kicker must contact the ball at its center. For most people, trying to smack the center of the ball with the laces of his kicking shoe risks dragging the toe along the ground. So the kicker has to drop his body down slightly when approaching the ball. Studies have suggested that the optimal angle from which the kicker should approach the ball is between 43 and 45 degrees, as measured against the straight line that runs between the ball and the goalposts.
The biggest benefits of the soccer style seem to come in accuracy. The non-kicking leg of a soccer-style kicker is in a better position to control his movements. His bent non-kicking knee absorbs the impact of landing rather than transferring an enormous jolt through the body. Stability through the moment of impact is crucial to making the ball go where you want it to. Research presented at a 2009 conference by Lees showed that muscles around the non-kicking leg of a placekicker are highly engaged during the moments before the ball is struck, which helps the kicker keep the rest of his body stable.
Also, the laces area provides a larger area of contact than the toe, further improving the kicker’s accuracy. While there are no scientific data as yet on this, the practical evidence is suggestive: Some modern kickers make field goals at a higher rate than their counterparts converted simple extra points 30 years ago.
Three men share the NFL record for longest field goal, at 63 yards. One of them, Tom Dempsey, was a straight-on kicker born with no toes on his kicking foot. Dempsey wore a special shoe with a squared-off end, which created a far greater impact area than the toe on an ordinary shoe.
While researchers believe the soccer style of kicking has an accuracy advantage, it’s not necessarily better in all scenarios than the straight-on style, which has undeniable power benefits. When the Skins are stuck on the 50-yard line with one second left on the clock, they just might be better off with their old kicker Mark Moseley, the last great straight-on NFL kicker, than today’s soccer stylists.