As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.
“There’s no scenario where you’re going to line up and do it.”
This is Sam Koch, the Baltimore Ravens’ holder and punter, talking about kicking the longest field goal ever.
The game situation would have to be exactly right: about a second left in the fourth quarter with the score within three or at the end of a half, when it’s the only option. The temperature would have to be warm—probably above 80 degrees. And even if the weather and the timing converged, coaches would favor a Hail Mary because at least those have succeeded. If you missed the kick, you’d also likely have to defend against a long return; Ravens long-snapper Morgan Cox brought up the specter of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown out there with a bunch of blockers ready to return the kick. To make it even close to worth the risk, Cox said, you’d have to know that your kicker would put the ball into the stands no matter what.
“However,” Koch said after he and Cox listed the myriad reasons this sort of kick would never happen. “I have no doubt Justin would go out there and make the kick.”
Justin Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, and Justin Tucker can kick the longest field goal in NFL history. The former is a fact, and the latter is also treated as such among the Ravens, friends of Tucker, and Tucker himself. The longest field goal in history came in 2013 when Denver’s Matt Prater kicked it 64 yards in the thin Colorado air. Overall, 127 field goal attempts have come from 60 yards and beyond; only 16 were successful. Just 25 kicks have been attempted from 65 and beyond, and the historical success rate is zero. The longest kick ever attempted was a 76-yarder from Sebastian Janikowski in a 2008 game against the San Diego Chargers that fell ludicrously short.
For about a hundred years “field goal” range has typically meant “within about 40 yards of the end zone.” If a player showed a 70-yarder were possible in a game, it would change football. It would be the kind of game-planning checkmate coaches dream of.
“I think it definitely gives us an advantage when we’re planning going into the game,” Tucker said. “When we’re into the game and adrenaline is pumping to get in range for a end-of-half or end-of-game field goal, we know we have—I’d like to think we have—a better chance than anyone else that we can kick the ball from wherever.”
The 70-yard mark is the Hyperloop of football; it may seem like it will never happen, but one guy is really sure it could happen if everything broke right.
“Here’s the thing: As soon as I tell anyone I can hit from 74, 75, 80, I’m not saying it to blow smoke; I’m saying it because I can do it,” Tucker said. “I’ve hit from 79 in practice, my best guess is I can hit an 84-yarder in Denver.”
The 27-year-old has made 89.8 percent of his kicks in his five NFL seasons. He is universally considered the best kicker in the NFL and has hit from as far as 61 yards in a regular-season game. His Ravens special teams outfit is considered one of the best in the NFL. Last weekend in a preseason game he begged the coaching staff to attempt a 72-yarder. Ever since he hit a 67-yarder in college, Tucker has entertained the possibility of using these kicks to win games—and he continuously stressed that his desire to kick from long range is rooted in a desire to help his team win. The Ravens practice these kicks with one of the most efficient position groups in football—dubbed “The Wolfpack” after the group of friends from the Hangover movies.
“I don’t care about the record,” said the Ravens’ special teams coordinator, Jerry Rosburg. “But if we have to make a field goal that’s going to win us the game and it happens to be 65 yards, I’m all for it. We’ll take a long field goal if we need it to win—we’re not going to line up and kick a 70-yard field goal because we think it’s cool.”
Rosburg said he “loves the purpose behind practicing extraordinarily long field goals.” You have to practice 70-yard field goals because it’s the only way to see all of the effects of a kick. If you only practice 40-yarders, Rosburg explains, they hit the net and you never learn a whole lot. How much did the weather help or hurt the kick? How does the ball finish its flight path? How did the ball track in the air?
Tucker’s warm-up involves “backing up until the ball doesn’t go through,” he said. He does this to gather information on what is possible given the wind, weather, and humidity. Tucker said he kicks about 15-20 balls in warm-ups per practice, 10-15 in full-team reps, and with coaches supervising kicks, another 20 or 30 to get coaching from Rosburg and his staff.
Since 70-yard attempts are so rare—there have been only six in history—there’s not a lot of research on how to go about them. That’s what makes Tucker’s trial-and-error operation so fascinating. By practicing them at all, he learned something: There is not a tremendous amount of difference between the longest field goal ever and any other kick. When quarterbacks reach back for a Hail Mary, they exert all their energy. When a basketball player heaves a half-court shot, he changes the arc. Tucker says any changes for a 70-yarder are minute. For all kicks, the first 6 to 8 yards of the process is the exact same. Cox will snap the ball 8 yards deep to Koch, who holds it in the same way he’d always hold it.
“There’s no difference than if he were trying to hit a 2-yard-line old PAT,” Koch said.
Tucker said he knows for a fact it is the same setup from 79 yards. How? “I know because I’ve done it.”
In the same way NASA waits for perfect launch conditions, Tucker thinks about kicking these field goals in the ideal atmosphere.
“You start with the temperature—it’s got to be a warmer day. It’s physics. The ball is more elastic when it’s warmer and therefore travels further. You have to have good footing. I’d prefer just a freshly cut grass field,” Tucker said.
He adds that there’s a thin line between overscrutinizing a kick and going into a kick with no information. He will kick the same kick over and over, take a mental note of the temperature, ball flight, wind, etc., and then recall it all the next time he’s in that scenario.
“I try to be realistic,” he said. He points to the practice field and mentions that it’s near-maximum humidity and 80 degrees. “The ball is not going to go as far today as it would in Denver in September and it’s 85 degrees on a nice, well-maintained field.”
Adrenaline is good for a few yards on a given kick, he said, and so the added motivation behind hitting a fourth-quarter game winner would help, rather than hurt. “You’ve gathered all the data but you have to assume there’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush,” Tucker said. “A couple of kicks at the end of the game I’ve had, those have been my best kicks. If there wasn’t a net there they’d have left the stadium.”
It is clear, after a few minutes of talking, that Tucker thinks a lot about what it would take to kick a field goal like this. He’s not alone in his obsessiveness: Koch and Cox are so detailed-oriented that they’ve consulted the Navy on how to best monitor wind.
Would wind help? “I would say yes,” Tucker added. “If we’re going to try to drop bombs from 65-, 70-plus, it would be nice to have a little tail wind.”
Koch had a different view: “The wind would need to be blowing about 50 miles per hour” for an attempt to be realistic in a game.
Although the ball is going to travel 70 yards in the air, everything comes down to the final step with the plant foot.
Doug Blevins, a kicking expert who started coaching Tucker when he was in high school, said that for a right-footed kicker, the key is almost entirely in the last step with the left foot before the kick. Blevins refers to this as a power-drive step. On a long kick, it is human nature to make these steps longer in order to generate power, but that doesn’t help. “If you elongate the step at all, you end up yanking your body around,” Blevins said. He added that even the slightest overturning of the body would send a record-long field goal attempt dramatically off course. A miscalculation of this sort on a PAT would send the ball a few feet off course; on a long kick, it would send it comically wide.
Tucker also said that the last step would be where the only change would occur.
“The only thing that changes is I might just jump into the ball a little bit more, to put a little more extra mustard on it, but I prefer to keep everything consistent from one kick to the next,” Tucker said. “I’d probably be a little bit more aggressive.”
Rosburg said you would need slightly more hip rotation to generate the power, but not much else would change.
Tucker has a fast leg. Blevins compares it to a baseball pitcher with the natural ability to throw hard who can then marry natural talent with technique and refinement.
“His leg speed was given to him by God,” Blevins said. “Over the years he learned to kick with his body weight as opposed to kicking it only with the leg. Then you pair that with the flexibility he has and he can kick the ball a mile.”
Blevins said Tucker has a shot to break the record: It would need to be in a dry climate and elevation would help, and he would have to not “overkick” and be consistent. That, Blevins said, is Tucker’s trademark. When he shows younger kickers film of Tucker, he’s amazed at how every kick looks the exact same. “There is no deviation. It is all perfect muscle memory.”
When Tucker saw Adam Vinatieri’s Super Bowl–winning kicks over a decade ago, he had a realization. “That would be amazing if that was me one day,” he said. “And I made the decision that it had to be me.” In fact, Blevins, who has coached Vinatieri, said the two are nearly identical on film.
Since the balls are harder and less broken-in today, Blevins said that kicking is more difficult than ever before. In that context, he thinks Tucker’s rewriting of the accuracy record books is even more impressive than it’s made out to be.
“I think Justin has a good grasp on history,” Blevins said. “He wants to be the best kicker that ever played. He keeps that in perspective: He can be, and he believes he can be, and I think he’s on his way.”
Confidence, Koch said, is crucial for a kicker, and his team loves Tucker for it. Cox believes Tucker when he talks about how far he can kick.
“But we have to be realistic and approach it like a coach would,” Koch said, “and they’d go for the Hail Mary.”
So yes, two-thirds of the Wolfpack thinks the record-shattering kicks might be Tucker’s pipe dream that coaches will never let him try. Tucker said he’s OK with that. He’ll settle for hitting the crossbar pregame from 85 in Denver, or backing up to into the 70s and nailing one on a practice field.
“I encourage you to put this in there: At the end of the day, I care about making kicks, helping my team win. I don’t care where we hit them from,” Tucker said.
Of course, he continues.
“But I do think the possibility gives us an advantage.”