By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; D01
When Nate Kaeding of the San Diego Chargers missed three field goal attempts in his team's three-point loss to the New York Jets last Sunday in an AFC semifinal, his performance was the stunning capper to two weeks of kicking inaccuracy in some of the NFL's biggest games.
Kaeding had made 69 straight attempts from 40 yards or closer and, as the place kicker on the AFC's Pro Bowl team and the Associated Press all-pro squad, was one of the closest things to automatic the NFL had to offer in a kicker. He had made 91.4 percent of his field goal tries during the regular season and 87.2 percent of his regular season field goals during his six-year NFL career.
On Sunday, though, he missed from 36, 57 and 40 yards in the Chargers' 17-14 loss -- and he found himself in the company of Neil Rackers, Shaun Suisham and Shayne Graham.
Rackers, of the Arizona Cardinals, missed a 34-yard field goal try in the final seconds of regulation of a tie game against the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals overcame the miss to beat the Packers on a touchdown in overtime in the highest-scoring postseason game in NFL history.
The Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals weren't as fortunate. Graham missed twice in the Bengals' loss to the Jets, from 35 and 28 yards, in the opening round of the AFC playoffs. Suisham, signed by the Dallas Cowboys after he was released by the Washington Redskins during the regular season, missed twice Sunday at Minnesota, although it hardly mattered in a 31-point loss.
The spotlight might be even brighter than usual on the four place kickers in Sunday's conference championship games -- youngster Garrett Hartley of New Orleans and veterans Ryan Longwell of Minnesota, Matt Stover of Indianapolis and Jay Feely of the Jets.
"It's the importance of the kicks that people are noticing," former Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Nick Lowery said this week.
The postseason misses, most notably the five by the Bengals and Chargers that have helped the Jets reach the AFC title game against the Colts, have been the exclamation points to a season in which field goal accuracy sagged. League-wide, place kickers connected on 81.3 percent of their field goal attempts during the regular season, down from last season's record 84.5 percent and the lowest mark since it was 81 percent in the 2005 season.
Some observers draw a distinction between the postseason problems of Kaeding and Rackers -- Kaeding has missed seven of his 15 career postseason field goal attempts and Rackers has missed four of his 10 -- and what happened league-wide during the regular season.
"It's a pretty small number of kicks for both of those guys, but clearly the numbers say they're different kickers in the postseason," former NFL place kicker Jess Atkinson said. "A lot of my kicks were postseason kicks. The playoffs are a completely different animal because of the whole win-or-go-home mentality."
The dip in field goal accuracy from last season to this season broke a trend of steady improvement. That annual climb in field goal accuracy had some within the sport wondering whether kickers had become too good and if something needed to be done -- like narrowing the goal posts, or widening the hash marks on the field so that some field goal tries would come from more severe angles -- to make putting three points on the scoreboard more difficult.
"That's funny," said Lowery, who also kicked for the Jets and briefly for the New England Patriots during his 18-year NFL career. "When Dan Marino threw 48 touchdown passes [in 1984, then a single-season league record], they didn't say, 'Let's make the ball bigger and heavier. Let's have one pass rusher go unblocked every time, just to make it harder.' "
Some observers wonder if this season's downturn was simply a statistical oddity with no particular meaning.
"The Dow Jones, it goes up and down, too," said Marv Levy, the former coach of the Buffalo Bills who began his Hall of Fame career as a special teams coach. "It just happens that way sometimes."
Levy, of course, knows just how confounding kicking inaccuracy can be. His Bills lost Super Bowl XXV, 20-19, when Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
Others say kickers may have raised expectations to unreasonable levels with their accuracy in recent seasons.
"I think some of it is that kicking got to be so good, you're seeing more field goals attempted from further away, and that makes it tougher on the kicker," said Dick Vermeil, another highly successful former NFL coach who once coached special teams. "It's like with the kid Kaeding the other day. He missed one from 57 yards. Your percentages on that one are not going to be very good. And then after that, it got tougher on him."
But some say they saw a league-wide trend of several teams going with younger place kickers, as when the Baltimore Ravens parted ways with a reliable veteran, Stover, last offseason and handed their kicking job to Steve Hauschka -- only to release Hauschka during the season and sign Billy Cundiff. Stover ended up in Indianapolis filling in for the injured Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the greatest clutch kicker in league history with his two last-second field goals to win Super Bowls for the Patriots, and the Colts have stuck with Stover in the playoffs.
"Maybe there was a mild case of complacency with last year's success," Lowery said. "Maybe people said, 'We can put anyone in there and be successful.' But would you rather go into the playoffs with a guy with a big, strong leg who's a little iffy, or the guy you know is going to make that 40-yarder? When you have a kicker you can trust, you should keep him around whether he's 18 years old or 108."
Atkinson, who kicked in college at Maryland and had NFL stints with the Redskins and other teams, said that having a proven kicker such as Stover or Vinatieri in the playoffs is invaluable to a team, even if the teams themselves don't always realize it because many spend their time searching for young kickers with stronger legs.
"Many teams judge kickers based on how far they can kick a football," said Atkinson, who also runs a video company that has worked with The Washington Post. "I help out with coaching some younger kickers and I tell them, 'There are a lot of people that can kick a football. But there aren't many kickers.' . . . To function in the crucible of the playoffs, when you can be the long-standing goat, you can't be afraid of failure.
"We all as human beings have that fear of failure. I think that's what you have to deal with if you're going to succeed in the playoffs. In the regular season, there's usually another chance next week. That's not the case in the playoffs. You risk abject humiliation. Nobody else on the field risks that. If a high school kid can do exactly what an NFL kicker can do, and kick a 34-yard field goal, you're risking abject humiliation."
Kaeding had the added mental burden last weekend of having failed in the playoffs previously, including the miss of a potential game-winning field goal in overtime against the Jets as a rookie at the end of the 2004 season.
"People think it's so easy," Lowery said. "But it's impossible to describe how tiny those goal posts look when you're standing out there."