The conventional place-kicker is closer than ever to extinction.
Rick Danmeier of the Minnesota Vikings, a conventional kicker, has been replaced this year by Benny Ricardo, a soccer-style kicker. That leaves the NFL with exactly one conventional, straight-on kicker--Mark Moseley of the Washington Redskins.
Two years ago, I wrote an article on the predominance of the soccer kicker over the straight-on kicker, and showed graphically how each year, without exception, the number of soccer kickers has increased.
When Pete Gogolak, the first soccer-style kicker in the NFL, came on the scene in 1964, Jim Bakken of the St. Louis Cardinals said, "Kicking soccer style is just a fad." At that time, the scoreboard read 24 conventional kickers, one soccer-style kicker.
I think that soccer kickers are dominating mainly because the whole side of the foot is used as opposed to just the toe area by the straight-on kicker. A conventional kicker must hit the center of the ball to be accurate; a soccer kicker just has to "get" the ball.
It's also easier to maintain balance when approaching the ball from the side because your feet are spread apart. A straight-on kicker needs excellent balance to stay on that perfectly straight imaginary line and finish on it after the kick. He must walk a tightrope.
As soccer kickers have taken over, the successful field goal percentage rate has gone up somewhat proportionately. In the late 1960s, kickers as a group were averaging only around 50-55 percent in field goals. Only occasionally did a kicker hit 70 percent or more.
In the 1970s, the group percentage went up into the 60 and 70 percent range. Occasionally, a kicker would hit the 80 percent mark. Don Cockroft, formerly of the Cleveland Browns, was one. Two years ago, Jan Stenerud of Green Bay set a field goal percentage record of 91.67, which beat Lou Groza's seemingly unbeatable record of 88.46 percent.
Groza had connected on 23 of 26 attempts; Stenerud made 22 of 24, including a 53-yarder. Stenerud surely thought his record would be safe for a long time, or at least until he retired.
But last season, Moseley made 20 of 21 attempts. Granted, it was an abbreviated year, but he still had to contend with the wind, rain, snow and championship pressure.
Why the tremendous increase in field goal percentage? Let's look at the physical factors first.
The hash marks have been moved in, ostensibly to add more offense, but also making it easier for the kicker because it improves the angle. With the advent of artificial turf, the kicker is assured of kicking on a smooth surface untroubled by grassy projections. High grass can cover half or more of the ball and give the kicker a bad picture.
Then came the goal posts with the extended uprights. The innovation made it easier for the referees to call the kick. The higher the uprights, the better the reference to the ball. Later, little ribbons were fastened at the top of the uprights to show wind direction. In a stadium like Shea in New York, the wind swirls and the flags up top can be blowing in a different direction from the flags at ground level.
But these are physical factors. Just as important, or maybe more important, was the competition that developed between the soccer kicker and straight-on stylist.
The soccer kicker came on the scene and demonstrated an ability to kick farther and, in many cases, more accurately. This forced the conventional kicker to bear down and work harder. It's my conviction that the Don Cockrofts, the Jim Turners or the Mark Moseleys, all conventional kickers, would not have reached such lofty totals had they not been pushed by the Gogolaks, Steneruds and Rolf Benirschkes.
Here's a breakdown over the years of the number of soccer-style kickers compared with the straight-on variety: