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What’s Behind the NFL’s Kicking Regression?

Nearly every year, the league’s kickers get better—but in 2019, field goal accuracy is down 5 percentage points. What happened? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every football fan is the boy who cried “our kicker sucks.” It’s just so easy to blame kickers. A team will fight and battle to put this tiny guy with one job in optimal position to succeed, and then sometimes he fails. When the quarterback fails, fans can blame the offensive coordinator or the head coach or the receivers or the offensive line to avoid admitting the $70 we spent on our quarterback’s jersey was a waste of money. But with the kicker, there is nobody else to blame—and none of us have bought his jersey. Fans know a kicker can hit a 43-yard field goal, so every time a kicker misses a 43-yard field goal, we feel like the kicker messed up.

But for most of football history, kickers have steadily become less sucky. In 1950, kickers hit 44.2 percent of their field goals. In 1960, kickers hit 56.0 percent of their field goals. In 1970, it was 59.4 percent; in 1980, it was 63.6 percent; in 1990, it was 74.4 percent; in 2000, it was 79.7 percent. Last year, it was 84.7 percent. It was the second-most-accurate year in league history (2013, when kickers made 86.5 percent of their kicks, holds the record). In the early days of the NFL, kicking was an afterthought, a job for quarterbacks to try in their spare time, or for random European guys who weren’t athletic enough to play soccer. Now, it’s a science, performed by focused specialists who chose to kick from a young age and were trained by more focused specialists. Twelve of the top 17 kickers all time in field goal accuracy have kicked in the NFL this season; 25 of the top 30 have kicked in the NFL at some point in the past five seasons. Of course, the complaints never stopped—even as kickers hit record-setting numbers, we blamed them for not hitting 100 percent.

But something weird has happened this year. After years of steady gains, the leaguewide field goal accuracy rate has stunningly dropped 5 percentage points. Kickers are now hitting on 79.7 percent of field goals; if that holds, 2019 would be the first time the league has dipped under 80 percent since 2003. Leaguewide field goal accuracy is a stat that’s had a steady upward trend for decades—since 2000, leaguewide field goal accuracy has seen year-over-year improvement 14 times, and a year-over-year decline just four times, generally due to an unsustainably good year the year before. A 5 percentage point drop is unfathomable.

The good kickers are struggling. Both of last year’s Pro Bowl kickers, Aldrick Rosas and Jason Myers, have experienced severe drop-offs, with Rosas missing more field goals despite 23 fewer attempts and Myers a dismal 14-for-19. Stephen Gostkowski, third all time in field goal accuracy, missed four extra points before the Patriots placed him on the injured reserve with a hip injury. Robbie Gould and Wil Lutz, seventh and fifth all time in field goal accuracy, are both having the worst seasons of their careers. And then there’s the GOAT, Adam Vinatieri, who is struggling massively, connecting on just 75 percent of field goals and 75 percent of extra points. Vinatieri, who holds the NFL records for career points and field goals made, is the main culprit in two of Indianapolis’s four losses this year—he missed two field goals and an extra point in a season-opening, six-point loss to the Chargers and a would-be game-winning 43-yarder against the Steelers. Despite his spectacular and historic career, it seems like it’s time for the Colts to move on from their 46-year-old kicker if they want to win.

That said, it seems like moving on from Vinatieri could be disastrous, because the bad kickers have been especially bad. Four teams that needed to turn to a free-agent kicker have been so underwhelmed by the performance of that free-agent kicker that they’ve had to cut that guy and bring in somebody new. Then they learned the hard way that their free-agent kicker was not good enough: The Jets had Taylor Bertolet in training camp, but cut him and brought in Kaare Vedvik to start the season … and then Vedvik cost the team their season-opener against the Bills by missing both kicks he attempted. The Falcons had Giorgio Tavecchio, but turned to longtime Falcon Matt Bryant after Tavecchio underwhelmed in preseason—then had to cut Bryant after he made just nine of 14 kicks; the Patriots brought in Mike Nugent after Gostkowski’s injury, but cut him after a 5-for-8 start.

And then there’s the Titans. After an injury to Ryan Succop in preseason, the Titans brought in Cairo Santos, but cut him after he went 0-for-4 in a game. Then the team brought in Double Doinker Cody Parkey, who promptly doinked an extra point. Succop eventually healed from his injury, but is 0-for-3 for the Titans through his past two games. Tennessee is just 7-for-15 on field goals this year, putting them in line to be the first team to make less than 50 percent of its field goals since 1987.

It’s strange. Kicker has generally seemed like the most replaceable position in football, since kickers don’t really have to learn the playbook or adjust to a new team’s strategies—they can just step in off the street and kick. But this year, the performance of off-the-street kickers has been so dismal that even teams with struggling kickers must feel they can’t make a change.

What’s causing the drop-off? After years of improvement, have kickers actually gotten dramatically worse overnight? Right now, it seems like kickers have simply lost the range. They’re fine on chip shots: Kickers hit on 93.4 percent of field goals from 18 to 39 yards from 2010 to 2018; kickers are actually outperforming that number this year, hitting at 94.2 percent. They’re also doing fine on extra points, hitting at 93.7 percent, the second-worst number since the extra point was moved back in 2015, but not significantly worse than usual.

However, kickers are attempting more kicks, proportionally, from 40 yards and over than usual—from 2010 to 2018, 44.9 percent of kicks were from 40 yards or longer, while this year, 47.4 percent of kicks are from 40 yards or longer—and performing significantly worse on them. From 2010 to 2018, kickers hit 72.8 percent of these kicks; this year it’s 63.7 percent.

We don’t know why kickers have suddenly forgotten how to hit field goals from longer than 40 yards. Are holders forgetting to spin the laces out? (Maybe.) If we were baseball fans, we would start investigating the ball. I suspect the drop-off is a blip, not a trend. The decadeslong upward trajectory of kickers is too strong to suddenly be derailed this violently.

When it ends, I hope the Great Kicker Drought of 2019 teaches us to respect our tiniest football heroes. For too long, we have criticized them regardless of whether it is deserved. You never know what you’ve got until the new guy starts shanking every 43-yarder.