Place­kick­ing a sci­ence of per­fec­tion

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emerges.

“It’s just so funny, the stigma that this po­si­tion car­ries,” Bai­ley said in a phone in­ter­view af­ter the Cow­boys prac­ticed Thurs­day.

But Smith’s amused skep­ti­cism ob­scures an es­sen­tial re­al­ity for the Ravens and many other teams around the league: Tucker and his peers have used a sci­en­tific ap­proach to per­fect their craft to a de­gree that would have been in­con­ceiv­able a few decades back.

These days, if you don’t have a kicker who’s a dead shot from 50 yards and be­yond, you’re at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage. “You look across the en­tire game of football and play­ers are get­ting big­ger, faster, stronger. Schemes are evolv­ing,” Tucker said. “Kick­ers are no dif­fer­ent. You’re see­ing guys be­com­ing more and more spe­cial­ized.”

The Ravens-Cow­boys game will pit the NFL’s No. 1 de­fense against its No. 1 of­fense in a show­down of di­vi­sion lead­ers. But it will also serve as a cel­e­bra­tion of the NFL place­kicker.

Bai­ley is the most ac­cu­rate field-goal kicker in league his­tory. Tucker, 22-for-22 through nine games this sea­son, is No. 2.

When we dis­cuss the evo­lu­tion of pro football, we tend to fix­ate on the big­ger, stronger, faster ath­letes or the tac­ti­cal as­cent of the for­ward pass. No type of player, how­ever, has im­proved more re­lent­lessly than the kicker.

To­day’s prac­ti­tion­ers are not only more ac­cu­rate than their pre­de­ces­sors, they’re also rou­tinely split­ting the up­rights from dis­tances that were con­sid­ered off lim­its for decades, ex­cept in des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions.

If Bai­ley and Tucker were plopped into the NFL of the 1960s or even the 1980s, they’d reg­is­ter as some strain of alien sor­cer­ers.

Con­sider that Bai­ley has made 24 of 32 kicks (75 per­cent) from 50 yards and out in his ca­reer, bet­ter than the over­all make per­cent­age of Jan Stenerud, the only pure place­kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stenerud, who played from 1967 to 1985, was 17-for-64 (26.6 per­cent) from 50 yards or far­ther.

Or com­pare Tucker to Matt Stover, the Ravens’ old re­li­able for the first 13 years of the fran­chise. As de­pend­able as Stover was — 83.7 per­cent over­all — he dropped to 70.7 per­cent from 40 to 49 yards and to 40.6 per­cent from 50 yards or more.

Tucker has made 89.8 per­cent from 40 to 49 yards and 64.7 per­cent from 50 yards and out.

Of the 20 most ac­cu­rate kick­ers in his­tory, 13 are ac­tive and five oth­ers re­tired within the past five years.

Though kick­ers have re­ceived neg­a­tive at­ten­tion this sea­son for miss­ing ex­tra­point tries and po­ten­tial game-win­ning field goals, the gen­eral level of per­for­mance is so high that you al­most have to be per­fect, as Tucker has been, to stand out. Make 80 per­cent, a fig­ure that would have led the league many sea­sons in the 1970s, and you face crit­i­cism. Tucker learned as much in 2015, when he made just four of 10 from 50 yards and out.

“More kick­ers get bet­ter train­ing prob­a­bly at a younger age,” said Ravens coach John Har­baugh, a for­mer spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor. “There are prob­a­bly more kick­ing coaches out there teach­ing guys. I think a lot of kids are bet­ter equipped early on, in terms of the proper tech­niques.”

Ravens spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Jerry Ros­burg said that at this point, it’s rare for the team to see a kick­ing prospect who hasn’t re­ceived years of pro­fes­sional coach­ing. Gone are the days when kick­ers learned from their fa­thers or on their own through trial and er­ror.

Tucker is an ex­am­ple of that trend. He started work­ing with kick­ing guru Doug Blevins — who also taught Adam Vi­natieri and David Ak­ers —when he was a 15-yearold high school sopho­more in Texas.

Af­ter one ses­sion with the teenager, Blevins, a for­mer Mi­ami Dol­phins as­sis­tant, told Tucker’s par­ents their son would de­velop into an NFL kicker.

“Kick­ing has al­ways been a sci­ence, but it’s turned into more of a sci­ence,” Blevins said. “It’s just like the evo­lu­tion of the quar­ter­backs. Kick­ers go to train­ing camps at a young age now, and they’re so much more pre­pared.”

These days, he trains his charges in a pool as much as on dry land, striv­ing to im­prove their leg speed, flex­i­bil­ity and bal­ance. He be­lieves we’re not far from a time when 60-yard field goals will seem nor­mal for the best kick­ers, though he’s not sure we’ll ever see many in games be­cause coaches would worry about sac­ri­fic­ing field po­si­tion.

The sci­ence of im­proved kick­ing goes be­yond the me­chan­ics of strik­ing a ball. Stover cited the im­proved pro­fi­ciency of long snap­pers and hold­ers as key to the evo­lu­tion of the po­si­tion.

Ros­burg and Ravens kick­ing con­sul­tant Randy Brown time ev­ery as­pect of the field-goal setup, from snap to con­tact. They’re just as apt to of­fer point­ers to long snap­per Mor­gan Cox and holder Sam Koch as to Tucker.

“We spend so much time out­side of our team stuff just work­ing on the ef­fi­ciency and the tim­ing and stuff like that,” Koch said. “And we re­ally pay at­ten­tion to the de­tails. With that, we dis­sect ev­ery­thing from Tucker kick­ing, to his steps, to Mor­gan’s snap lo­ca­tions. Jerry, ever since he got here, he takes stats on ev­ery­thing. He keeps track of it all. That way, in our minds, we can see the fol­low­ing day how we’ve done and what we can do to im­prove. Peo­ple spend more and more time these days work­ing on the whole sys­tem rather than just each seg­ment.”

The mere fact that the Ravens em­ploy a kick­ing con­sul­tant speaks to the cul­ture un­der Ros­burg.

“You can an­a­lyze it a lot of dif­fer­ent ways if you have the in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “You find out why is the ball do­ing this when we’re hit­ting it here? Why is it dif­fer­ent when you’re hit­ting it there? Play­ers like feed­back. This is an ever-grow­ing en­deavor. We’re try­ing never to stand still.”

To that end, Tucker re­views film of ev­ery kick he hits in a game or in prac­tice. Whether he makes or misses the at­tempt is merely the jump­ing-off point. Each kick takes about 1.3 sec­onds, and Tucker breaks that span into com­po­nents, grad­ing each move­ment. He hopes the rou­tine will look vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal each time.

“I watch ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I think kick­ers get a bad rap for just chill­ing all week and then do­ing their thing on Sun­day. Maybe that’s other kick­ers, kick­ers that aren’t good. If you’re not will­ing to com­mit to the process of an­a­lyz­ing your tech­nique each and ev­ery day … if you’re not an­a­lyz­ing ev­ery sin­gle thing you do and brush­ing over it with a fine-tooth comb, you’re more than likely not go­ing to be em­ployed for long.”

Koch and Cox are right be­side him in the process.

“Those guys are get­ting more at­ten­tion to de­tail and at­tack­ing their craft in the same way that a quar­ter­back is go­ing to at­tack look­ing at his foot­work,” Tucker said. “I don’t know if that was nec­es­sar­ily an em­pha­sis 10 years ago, but it is now.”

In Dal­las, Bai­ley — who has worked with the same long snap­per for his en­tire six-year ca­reer and the same holder for the past four years — proudly counts him­self as just as much of a kick­ing nerd.

“Guys al­ways ask, ‘What do you watch film on?’ ” he said with a laugh. “But to me, I need to con­stantly check on any lit­tle thing I could im­prove and not just be sat­is­fied with whether I made or missed the kick. I love breaking stuff down and div­ing into the de­tails of kick­ing.”

Of course, some of the story comes back to pure tal­ent, as it al­ways does in the NFL. Stover said kick­ers are vastly bet­ter ath­letes than they were when he en­tered the league in 1991. He be­lieves many are fast and co­or­di­nated enough that they could have been re­ceivers and de­fen­sive backs in pre­vi­ous eras.

Tucker said it’s im­por­tant not to get bogged down in anal­y­sis. As he much as he thinks about his job dur­ing the week, he’s gen­er­ally work­ing to quiet his mind dur­ing games.

“You still need to be able to use your ath­leti­cism to just rip into a ball and let it work for you,” he said.

Tucker at­trib­uted his ca­reer-best per­for­mance this year in part to the greater peace of mind he felt af­ter sign­ing a four-year, $16.8 mil­lion con­tract in the off­sea­son.

“For me, I wasn’t think­ing about get­ting my deal done dur­ing the sea­son last year. I would never do that,” he said. “But the fact it got done in the sum­mer­time, it def­i­nitely makes me feel bet­ter about ev­ery­thing. It’s en­abled me to think a lit­tle bit more freely and swing a lit­tle bit more freely.”

That’s how he copes with a job that de­mands near-per­fec­tion. He loves the bi­nary na­ture of it, the fact that he could be­come the hero or the goat on each at­tempt. He takes pride in the fact that his team­mates, though they might tease him about his work­load dur­ing the week, do not want to be in his shoes Sun­day.

In that light, he didn’t mind Smith’s as­sess­ment of kick­ers one bit. “To be fair,” Tucker said with a big grin, “cot­ton candy be­ing made is kind of fas­ci­nat­ing.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has not missed a field goal in 22 at­tempts through nine games this sea­son.

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