When NFL fans settled down on their couches for a day of football and turkey on Thanksgiving, what they saw on television might have given them some indigestion.
For the final two games of the day, Cowboys versus Bills and Falcons versus Saints, the four kickers combined to go 14-for-20 on field goals and extra points. That’s 70 percent.
It would be easy to chalk this up to just a bad day. Maybe the huge national television audiences got into the kickers’ heads. Possibly too much pregame pumpkin pie.
But this was no one-day anomaly. It is the state of NFL kicking in 2019.
“It’s terrible,” said Mike Westhoff, who coached NFL special teams for 31 years before his recent retirement. “I’ve never seen the place-kicking this bad in the league. Yes, there’s a kicking crisis.”
NFL kickers are converting field goals at a 79.9 percent clip. If that doesn’t improve in the final four weeks of the season — and kicking usually gets worse in the final month due to the tougher weather conditions — it would be the lowest season percentage since 79.2 percent in 2003 and the biggest one-year decline, 4.8 percent, in league history.
“Yeah, it hasn’t been a good year for us kickers,” said veteran Nick Folk, who was in his 11th season before an appendectomy forced the Patriots to release him for now. “It seems like every team is having some issues. I couldn’t really tell you why.”
Jay Feely, who played for six teams in 14 years before becoming CBS’ kicking analyst, thinks everyone’s getting ahead of themselves.
“No, there’s no kicking crisis in the league,” he said. “I think you’re just seeing an abnormality for a couple of different reasons.”
He said it started with injuries. “Graham Gano and Stephen Gostkowski are on injured reserved. Adam Vinatieri got hurt but kept kicking. So you had a lot of young guys who had to come in and kick. Those young guys, a lot of them have struggled.”
Then, Feely said, older kickers have struggled. Gostkowski, Robbie Gould, Matt Bryant, Vinatieri, “those guys 35 and older have really struggled this year. I think it’s just an accumulation of those two things is why you’re seeing the percentage as low as it is.”
There is some evidence to back Feely’s claim. Just a year ago, kickers had their second-best field-goal percentage of all time (84.7 percent). Kickers don’t tend to decline overnight.
But older kickers do. The veteran kickers who have paced the league for years — Vinatieri, Gostkowski, Gano, Bryant and even Justin Tucker, Robbie Gould, Mason Crosby, Matt Prater and Dan Bailey — are not getting any younger. In fact, they’re all over 30 with an average age of 36.
And behind them, there’s a dearth of good young kickers. If you thought this year was a kicking crisis, wait until the old guard starts retiring or is run out of the league.
“I couldn’t even tell you who the next crop of kickers are,” said Westhoff, who still consults with multiple teams. “And I’m not sure the NFL teams know either. It’s gotten harder and harder to identify them every year.”
Besides injuries, there are alternative theories on why kicking has sharply declined.
Westhoff thinks rule changes have been the most to blame, whether it’s moving the extra point back from the 2-yard line to the 15 or the lesser-known alterations, like not allowing a defender over the snapper.
“It’s basically very difficult to block a kick now, unless there’s a failure with the blocking,” said Westhoff. “Blocked kicks have almost been eliminated from the game. In my opinion, that has made the kickers lazy with their timing and mechanics.”
Folk, who kicked for Westhoff with the Jets, disagreed.
“Speaking for myself, my mechanics haven’t changed and I’m still as quick to the ball,” Folk said. “I do think the extra-point distance has been a factor due to the pressure.”
Feely said moving the ball back just has a cumulative effect on kickers.
“With every miss you have, it builds throughout the year,” he said. “So when you added this extra-point rule and you started missing three, four, five more kicks on extra points, it has an impact on your psyche overall.”
There is also the thought that the college game has become so points-focused that kicking has become an afterthought. With colleges more concerned with employing great recruiters instead of great coaches/teachers, kickers and college players at every position arrive in the NFL with much to learn. In the college game , talent trumps development.
“I’ve seen it, they don’t really care about kickers at all down there,” said Westhoff. “For a lot of coaches, it’s touchdowns or bust. When you’re playing games that are in the 40s and 50s every week, you’re more concerned with who can get you six points than the guy getting you three. If you’re kicking field goals, you’re not holding serve, and pretty soon you’re out of the game.”
According to a study done by WatchStadium.com, kickers from Power Five conferences are converting on just 56.8 percent of their attempts from 40-plus yards; 41 from 50-plus.
That’s not going to come close to hacking it in the pros.
“If you look percentagewise, the best kickers of all time are current guys right now,” said Feely. “You even go back to when I started. If you were 80 percent, you were going to keep your job in 2000, 2001. Now you have to be 85, 87 percent to keep your job. So I think partly it’s that the success that kickers have had has been their own worst enemy. We’re held to this standard now where you basically have to be perfect. You have to be 90 percent or better for them to be content with you or stick with you, even when you have a down year.”
Nearly everyone agreed that the NFL is not doing enough to evaluate and develop kickers and, if that doesn’t change, there will be a real crisis.
There has been no better poster child for the disconnect between the college and pro game recently than Roberto Aguayo. The Florida State product won the Lou Groza Award as college’s top place-kicker during FSU’s national title run in 2013 and was an All-American his final three seasons. Aguayo left FSU as the most accurate kicker in college history and became the first since Sebastian Janikowski to leave school early. The Buccaneers thought so much of Aguayo that they traded up into the second round to select him in 2016.
By his second training camp, Aguayo was released after making only 22 of 31 field goals and missing two extra points. He was last heard from interning at the PGA Tour headquarters.
“The talent evaluators looked at his percentages in college and thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a great kicker in the NFL for sure, look at his percentage,’ ” Feely said. “When you looked at his percentage over 40 yards, it wasn’t very good. And if you knew kicking and looked at his mechanics, they weren’t very good and were very much timing-based.
“Most GMs and player personnel guys, for sure most special teams coaches, they don’t know how to look at the mechanics and know how they translate. A few teams have hired coaches on their staff that have kicking experience that know how to truly evaluate a kicker.”
Aguayo also obviously struggled with pressure, which is something many young kickers are having issues with in the conversion to the pros, where every kick matters because the margin of victory across the league gets slimmer every year.
“More than accuracy, more than distance, you need to find the guy who can handle that pressure, and that’s the hardest thing to evaluate,” Feely said. “That’s why I say if I were a GM, I would never draft a kicker. If I’m going to go the young route, I’m going to sign the best two guys I think I can get as free agents, bring them in, put them in pressure situations against each other and try to evaluate them through training camp to see who is going to handle that the best.”
There is hope that the struggles of young kickers this season will wake up NFL coaches and get them to invest in kicking specialists for their coaching staffs. Michigan State brought in former NFL kicker Shayne Graham this year to work with its players. On the NFL level, the Vikings hired Nate Kaeding as a kicking consultant this summer.
Said Feely: “I think when you’re looking at NFL coaching staffs and how big they have gotten and how much money they’re spending and the fact that the games have such slim margin of victories, to not bring somebody in who can legitimately help you and help your specialists is, I think, shortsighted.”
Greg A. Bedard covers the NFL for the Revoew-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @GregABedard on Twitter.