The NFL season began with a furor over new kickoff rules. Now as the midway point of the season nears, the kicking remains notable, but for a different reason.
NFL place kickers are connecting on their field goal attempts at a higher rate than ever, threatening to make even long-distance kicks nearly as automatic as extra points.
“Looking around the league, there are not too many people not having great years,” said Buffalo Bills place kicker Rian Lindell. “It’s just one of those years when guys have made the kicks.”
NFL kickers have been successful on 86.5 percent of their field goal tries this season. That is the highest percentage at this point in a season since at least the 1987 season. NFL officials say it would be the best percentage in history over a full season with at least 100 field goal attempts if kickers are able to maintain that pace.
Green Bay’s Mason Crosby and Jacksonville’s Josh Scobee each have made 14 of 14 field goal tries this season. Atlanta’s Matt Bryant and San Diego’s Nick Novak are both 11 for 11, and the New York Jets’ Nick Folk is 10 for 10.
“The kicking seems to me like it’s improving quite a bit every year,” the San Francisco 49ers’ David Akers said. “Some of the Pro Bowls that I’ve been to when I was around 84 percent, that would put you in the middle of the pack this year. Guys are getting better, and maybe the weather has been better. I haven’t seen too many nasty-weather games so far.”
“You miss a couple now, it’s breaking news,” added Akers, who has made 13 of his 15 field goal attempts in his first season with the 49ers after a dozen seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. “You have to pick up your game or you’ll be out of work.”
Through seven weeks last season, NFL kickers had connected on 81.9 percent of their field goal attempts. They hit 84.4 percent of their tries through seven weeks of the 2008 season, when they finished the year at what league is thought to be the record full-season percentage of 84.5 percent. Data on the number of field goal attempts and success rates wasn’t always kept reliably throughout league history, but it is generally accepted that field goal accuracy has improved greatly in recent years.
Only one NFL kicker has missed more than three field goal attempts this season. Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham has connected on 10 of 14 tries. Washington Redskins kicker Graham Gano is 11 for 14, a 78.6 percent accuracy rate.
“The biggest difference is the kicks from beyond 40 yards,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee. “That’s where the improvement really is. That was the impetus behind us wanting to change the overtime format for the postseason [eliminating the possibility of a team winning with a field goal on the opening possession of overtime] because the accuracy has become so good.”
Kickers even have been accurate on field goal attempts of 50 yards or longer, making 70.7 percent of them this season. Scobee is 5 for 5 on such kicks and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski is 5 for 6.
Several people said kickers’ skill has been improving for decades, citing everything from the quality of the young athletes who take up kicking to the sophistication of the instruction they receive.
“You’ve got guys that are starting at a younger age, taking it way more seriously, training seriously,” Akers said. “You have kicking camps. Guys are specialized, and even specialized in the way they train.”
Gary Zauner, an NFL special teams coordinator for 13 seasons with three teams, now works with individual kickers and runs development camps and combines for kickers.
“The kids who are the better soccer players, they’re coming to football to kick,” Zauner said. “In high school, they’re getting instruction. They get to college and they get instruction. In the old days, nobody was really working with guys at a higher level. When you get better instruction earlier, it pays dividends down the line.”
Zauner said the large number of kids playing soccer in the U.S. has made the quality of kicking in football better.
“Almost every guy that comes to me, I ask, ‘What’s your background?’ Almost all of them say, ‘I played soccer,’ ” Zauner said. “Then they gave up soccer after high school, maybe, to go to football full-time.
“A good swing coach in golf should help your game by three or four strokes,” he added. “I think a good kicking coach should do the same thing.”
Lindell, who has made 9 of 10 field goal attempts for the Bills this season, said kickers have become better athletes all around.
“They’re guys who could have played other sports well,” he said, “and they just found they could kick well and went to camps and all that. It’s not just the old stereotype of the guy who could have gone to Europe and played soccer.”
Lindell said fields also have become better and the entire field goal operation, beginning with the snap, has become more precise and dependable over the years.
What’s less clear is why field goal accuracy has improved from just last season to this season. Besides the relatively mild weather so far this season, it’s also possible that some kickers might be benefiting from the new kickoff rule, a safety measure that moved the ball five yards closer to the opposite end zone for kickoffs.
With most kickers able to reach the end zone, the new rule may allow them to focus more on field goal accuracy. Teams also may be less tempted keep a kicker with a big leg on kickoffs instead of an accurate place kicker.
Or maybe it’s all just a statistical blip, a one-year upswing, and accuracy will dip a few percentage points to its usual level next season.
McKay said it has been more than a decade since the sport’s rule-makers discussed any possible measures to counteract the increasing accuracy of kickers, such as narrowing the goal posts. He said he doesn’t expect any such provisions to be seriously considered this offseason, even if the current field goal percentage stays at record levels.
In the meantime, out-of-work kickers seeking to get back into the league, such as veteran Jeff Reed, may have to wait for a while.
“Besides Janikowski getting hurt,” Zauner said he told Reed, “nobody is really looking for a kicker. Nobody is having a bad year or missing kicks for anybody to be looking for a kicker.”