Placekicking a science of perfection
“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.”
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has not missed a field goal in 22 attempts through nine games this season.