NFL Kickers Up Up and Away
This Sunday, Adam Vinatieri is 10 points away from setting the all-time points scoring record held by Hall of Famer Morten Andersen. Morten became only the second pure kicker in the Hall after Jan Stenerud. With the way kickers are performing with a mid 80’s % success rate and with high powered offenses putting more kickers in a position to kick field goals, there are sure to be more of them on their way to Canton in the next decade.
Vinatieri has been a marvel in that he’s actually kept pace with the league’s dramatic kicking improvements. In his first four years in the league, he made less than 80 percent of his field goals three times (in 1996, 1998, and 1999). Since 2010, he’s finished below 80 percent once, in 2012. Vinatieri went 0-for-6 on kicks of 50-plus yards from 2003 to 2007—that’s five whole years in which he didn’t convert a 50-yarder. He’s gone 20-for-25 on 50-yard tries since 2014.
Maybe Vinatieri’s ability to get better two decades into his career is a sign that old players can prosper at this strange position. He’s 45, and he’s better than he was at 25.
Kickers like Vinateiri not only are more of the offense for their teams, they are also training like most of their teammates.
They're in the weight room more, employ specialized training and superior techniques, kick on more favorable surfaces, generally are better coached and are used more effectively and efficiently on game day.
They benefit from better athleticism than their predecessors, come almost exclusively from soccer backgrounds, are aided by an increased emphasis on special teams and rule changes, and even by playing some of their games indoors.
It all adds up to greater accuracy, especially from long distances.
The success rate has risen steadily from all distances, short and long, during the Super Bowl era, according to STATS LCC.
In 1967, for instance, barely 51 percent of all field goal attempts were good. This year the figure is 84.8 %, in 2013 it was a record. 86.5%.
See all years
Part of the reason for this increase is a dramatic rise in precision from 50 yards and greater, an indicator that kickers are better trained athletes:
1960s: 13.1 %
1970s: 21.6 %
1980s: 35.6 %
1990s: 47.8 %
"Just like running backs are getting bigger, faster, stronger, kickers are getting bigger and stronger and can kick farther and are more accurate and consistent," said Detroit’s Matt Prater, who at one point in his career was 9 of 11 from 50 yards and out, the best percentage in league history with a minimum of 10 attempts.
"The technique, basically if you look at every single kicker when they make contact with the ball, they're all in the same position. They start differently but when they make contact, they're always in the same exact kicking position."
There is also this to consider, that offenses are better than ever and those offenses have put kickers in a position to succeed. 2017 was a banner year for field goals. NFL kickers attempted 1,027 of them, a league record, and made 866, also a record high. The last 11 seasons are the top 11 ever by average league wide yards per play. Five of the top six seasons by average touchdowns per team have happened since 2010. Better offenses have put teams in field goal position more often, and that’s resulted in kickers taking—and making—a historic number of field goals.
"The pressure now to be 85 percent or better on your field goals might be more relevant now than it was in the '80s or '70s,"Kicker Dan Carpenter who last played for the Bill’s in 2016 said. "Back then if your field goal percentage was 80 percent, you were doing really well. Now it's like you're on the verge of struggling."
"If you can't make 80 to 85 percent, you're probably not going to be a kicker in the NFL," former Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "Or you'll be a guy who's getting an opportunity to kick somewhere else."
This means teams have less tolerance for kickers struggling, even if those kickers have lengthy track records of success. Just look at Dan Bailey, cut by the Cowboys in September despite his being the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. Or take Robbie Gould, the fifth-most accurate kicker of all time, who was cut by the Bears in 2016 despite being the team’s career leader in field goals and points.
Titans kicker Rob Bironas, who has made the most field goals in the league since 2005 and has an 85.3 percent career accuracy rate, started playing soccer when he was 4 and kept it up until college.
"The muscle memory you build over those years played is key. Once you get down good mechanics, your body remembers how to do it," he said.
Other factors include long-snappers who do nothing else and the proliferation of FieldTurf that's better than grass or the old Astroturf.
"Now, there's a lot of turf fields and even the grass fields are in great condition," Broncos special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "And back in the '60s, '70s and '80s a lot of those fields were mud and the old grass that's hard to keep up and there were very few turf fields, maybe the old cement turf fields. But even those were a little harder to kick on than today's FieldTurf stuff. That's a great kicking surface."
Also the long snapper and the holder are becoming more specialized using film analysis and situational analytics, including angle of the ball, pressure on the ball depending on field side and weather conditions.
Former Kicker Nick Folk "I think every team's got just about as pure of a long snapper as you can have. Back in the day, it was the third tight end or a backup lineman”
Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said the soccer style is the biggest key to improved accuracy but there's also a strategic element that can't be overlooked.
Since 1994, opponents take possession at the spot of the missed kick rather than the line of scrimmage for failed attempts beyond 20 yards. Closer than that and they get the ball at the 20.
"You see much more thoughtful decisions made whether you attempt a field goal because the penalty for a miss is so strong," Longwell said. "You're not just going to go out there and just wing it. It's got to be favorable conditions, favorable circumstances in the game to try it. So I think the percentages have gone up because of that."
Whatever the combination of factors are, kicking records are Up Up and Away with the only barrier seemingly a major rule change (shorter width of goal posts). Don’t laugh, this is a league that has figured out a way to make the extra point no longer automatic.