Seldom do the efforts of a kicker merit special attention in the NFL. Hats are raised this week to the Baltimore Ravens’ hero of the week, Justin Tucker, who absolutely manned up with a six-field-goal performance on Monday Night Football.
The last one a majestic 61-yarder that had just enough distance on it to clear the crossbar, just enough accuracy to sneak inside the upright, and just enough good timing to give his team all the points they would need to clear Detroit’s Ford Field as the victors.
Leave it to the Lions to keep a team out of the end zone all game long and yet lose a critical one in front of the home crowd. This commitment they have to mediocrity is truly epic. The hangover from 0-16 still hasn’t worn off.
But back to kickers for just a moment longer. To most who play and study the game, kickers are specialty performers and not normally considered football players. This has become even more true since the introduction of “soccer style” kicking in the 1960s by the Hungarian-born Pete Gogolak.
Prior to Gogolak, football kickers were the size of linemen because kicking the ball straight on doesn’t generate the leg speed necessary for long distances, nor is it as accurate. It was all about the power and that meant getting as much size (mass) behind the kick as possible.
When you have size, you fit in on a football team and you can make plays in other areas, and you are never a liability on the return (except for a certain lack of speed).
However, once Gogolak appeared on the scene, everything changed. In fairly short order, the NFL moved from the beefy American body typified by Lou “The Toe” Groza and Tom Dempsey to small and increasingly slender European types like Garo Yepremian and Jan Stenerud.
The next thing you know, long and lean began to be the norm with all the punters as well, none more notable than Ray Guy, who changed the perception most had of that kicking specialty even though his career was hardly what you might consider spectacular.
These new place kickers could indeed send the ball much further and with greater accuracy, but once they kicked it, they were out of their element. When the ball is in play, the plan for all kickers is pretty much to stay out of the way as much as possible.
As their skills became more specialized and their personal backgrounds so very different from everyone around them, it became even harder for these players to “fit in” on football teams, often notorious for their ingrained obstinacy.
There are some hysterical stories (and more than a few ugly ones) about the cultural acclimation of European kickers to American football in those days. Yepremian authored more than his share of priceless gems. Since everyone now kicks it in that style, the need for European imports vanished as more and more American kids picked up the skill.
Celebrating kickers is something of a football oddity. It takes a really special moment to consider their feats. (Oooh! That pun actually hurt when I wrote it.) Mostly we only mark them for their failures - a characteristic they share with offensive linemen.
So congratulations to Justin Tucker. You produced all the points. You never missed a shot. And you didn’t stick your nose in where it didn’t belong. Ask the Bengals’ Kevin Huber how important that decision is, just don’t expect him to answer right away.
Now we’re ready for the NFL’s penultimate Week 16!
Dolphins at Bills - Miami has a slim chance to get into the postseason, but the only way that chance will ever work is if they beat Buffalo on the road.
After holding on desperately for a win in Pittsburgh two weeks ago and mostly shutting down New England last week, their luck seems good enough to last another week. Besides, good things always seem to come in threes. At least I think that’s how that goes?
Saints at Panthers - We get to enjoy the Game of the Day early as an increasingly worried New Orleans team travels into the East Coast version of the Temple of Boom to face the best defense on this side of the Mississippi River.
Although their kicker wasn’t the cause of their embarrassing loss in St. Louis on Sunday, Coach Sean Payton cut him anyway and this week signed Shayne Graham, a former Texan and Bengal. The two teams have dead-even records and New Orleans currently holds the tiebreakers thanks to a better division record and the fact they beat Carolina (and pretty handily) week before last.
“Payback Time” is always a pretty interesting event on the pro level. The Saints have a very different level of performance when they venture away from the Superdome. Without their best game Carolina has the potential, as well as the motivation, to put a big hurt on them and put one hand firmly on that divisional title and the playoff spot that goes with it. Take the homers and hold on tight.
Vikings at Bengals - Cincinnati finishes the season with two home games, each one more critical than the last but both requiring wins if they want to host a playoff game and give themselves any hope to do better than their one-and-done postseason appearances of the past two years. Whatever happens, at least we know they won’t be facing Houston this time.
No team performed in a more dysfunctional fashion than Minnesota this season (although they had some company in that regard). They have given us scant reason to expect much. Now - finally - four months on the field (counting the preseason), the Vikings are performing up to their potential, winning two of their last three despite huge roster replacements thrown in for surprisingly good measure.
There is no reason to have great confidence in Cincinnati, but so far they are undefeated at home, beating the likes of Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers and New England with you-know-who, and that confidence level speaks volumes at the season’s nitty-gritty time.
Broncos at Texans - Denver better win this one or the surging Chiefs will be set to go for a long horsey ride. Consider this a lock, but be careful not to leave the key behind.
Titans at Jaguars - Hard to believe, but with this win Jacksonville ties Tennessee in the won-loss record and bests their conference record. The Jags have been getting it done since Thanksgiving. Too late to do any good, but good to see. For their part, the Titans won’t quit but it’s a sad sight in the end.
Colts at Chiefs - Indy is running out of gas at the wrong time. Is it too late for a pit stop?
Browns at Jets - Cleveland is far less flaky than Gang Green, but they get bit by a lot more snakes. Thankfully there’s not too many pit vipers to be found in New York at this time of year.
Buccaneers at Rams - A 45-year love affair with the Rams keeps on hanging on. (Nope, never worn the watermelon helmet.) But things are overdue for a bit of passion.
Beating Tampa Bay is not exactly a “Wow” on the excitement meter, but this whole season in St. Louis has been kind of a lull, full of unrealized hopes and dreams sprinkled only occasionally by sparkles of great play. Hard to be a fan of the Jones Dome, but going with the home team anyway.