Now more than ever, kickers are a factor
The improved range of kickers has coaches rethinking how they approach late-game situations, writes John Clayton.
Rob Bironas' 60-yard field goal that beat the Colts in Week 13 drove home a remarkable change in strategy thanks to the powerful legs of kickers.
Teams that possess kickers capable of connecting from 60-plus yards just have to cross midfield in the final two minutes to have a chance for a victory. In the past, coaches figured getting to the opponent's 35 was the make-or-break mark for a field goal. Now the 45-yard line is in play, meaning a team pinned around its 20-yard line with 40 seconds left needs to complete only two passes before calling a timeout and getting a chance to win.
It creates a new era of game management that adds new levels of excitement and paranoia to the final seconds of games.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher is one of the best game managers in football. He is up-to-date on most trends and can adjust his strategy with that information. His late-game decisions last Sunday illustrate how the impact of those powerful kickers is changing the game in a positive way.
Here's the situation: The Titans and Colts were tied at 17. The Titans had the ball on their 25 with 2:32 remaining in regulation. Fisher realized he couldn't put the ball in Colts QB Peyton Manning's hands because Manning would be able to drive for his own game-winning field goal. Fisher needed first downs, but he also needed to milk the clock.
"Before the half after a kickoff, Peyton Manning had 11 seconds left, completed one pass and called a timeout," Fisher said. "He completed a 25-yard pass and had time to get Adam Vinatieri on the field for a 52-yard field [goal attempt]. In this situation, there was no way I was going to punt the ball to him, knowing he had a timeout and give him a chance to get one completion and get a chance at a game-winning field goal."
Good thinking. With a timeout at his disposal, Manning would have had the chance to work his entire passing tree to get one completion. In the first half with 12 seconds left, the Colts moved from their 40 to the Titans' 35 with five seconds to spare.
"Now if he doesn't have any timeouts, it's a different story," Fisher said. "I would have punted because he couldn't use the middle of the field and we could have forced his throws to the sidelines. We can defend that. In that case, I might have punted."
In this case, Fisher needed to get first downs and milk the clock. And thanks to the legs of QB Vince Young, Tennessee was able to move the chains. With 1:20 left, Young ran for 9 yards on a third-and-4 to give the Titans a first down at their own 40. Two plays later, Young hit Bobby Wade on an 18-yard completion to the Colts' 41. Young spiked the ball to stop the clock with 31 seconds left, but an illegal formation moved the ball back to the Colts' 46.
Young got a four-yard completion to the Colts' 42 and then spiked the ball. On third down, he tried a pass but it was incomplete. With 12 seconds left, Fisher called a timeout. Colts coach Tony Dungy followed suit. A strong wind was at Bironas' back, and he nailed the kick.
This Colts-Titans game needs to be studied even further. It's the perfect storm of two positive directions in the game. Since 1998, Manning has been perfecting the no-huddle, two-minute-type offense and spreading it over 60 minutes of football. Manning has gotten it down to a science and can move from almost any part of the field into game-winning field goal range with minimal time left on the clock.
More and more teams use the no-huddle so they have similar opportunities.
The second part of the perfect storm is the kickers. They survived the K-ball challenge, which made them kick new footballs that weren't rubbed down or specially prepared. Whether it's improved weight lifting or better coaching, kickers are becoming more powerful by the year.
Through 12 games, kickers have made 80 percent of their 709 field goal attempts. That's the fourth consecutive season in which they've maintained the 80 percent accuracy level. Kickers have hit 72 percent of kicks between 40 and 49 yards and are almost 50-50 on kicks longer than 50 yards (33-of-71).
Where the numbers get interesting is in the final two minutes of a half. Kickers are 49-of-65 (75 percent) in the final two minutes of halves, even though that is when things are most likely to be crazy. Many are asked to make kicks longer than their range. Often, they don't have proper time to set up. A year ago, kickers made 71 percent of kicks in two-minute situations. In 2004, they made 70.3.
No wonder Bill Parcells wasted little time in cutting Mike Vanderjagt, who had the yips on his kicks, missing five of 18. Reputations are one thing, but this is a results business. Vanderjagt wasn't getting it done. The Cowboys might not have won last Sunday's game against the Giants had they kept Vanderjagt and not signed Martin Gramatica. Gramatica made three field goals, including the game-winner.
So far this year, 51 games have been decided by three points or less. That's 26.6 percent of the games, one of highest percentages in recent years.
With so many games being close, kickers are going to play a big role during the playoffs. How much of an advantage did the Colts gain in signing Vinatieri? The Patriots have made 13 of 17 field goals with rookie Stephen Gostkowski.
The Bears, Ravens, Panthers, Saints and Broncos have kickers with 90 percent accuracy figures.
So far this season, 21 games have been won in the last two minutes of regulation or in overtime. Josh Brown of the Seahawks has four game-winning kicks in the final minute of regulation, tying Ryan Longwell of the Packers (2004). His 54-yarder against the Rams in October was the third longest of the season.
With the 40-yard line being in play on last-second field goals, coaches can rethink strategies involving last-second plays. Instead of just heaving a Hail Mary, coaches can try a shorter pass or two as long as they have a timeout.
This may also cause coaches to rethink some early game strategies if they sense the game will go down to the wire. Maybe they will be less willing to make a replay challenge knowing a mistake could cost them a timeout and a chance to set up a last-second field goal.
Fisher hit on the key last Sunday when he realized Manning had a timeout to use. One long completion could have given Vinatieri a chance at a game-winner. More coaches have to realize that if a team is at its own 20, all it has to do is move 40 yards to be within possible field goal range.
At this rate, it's becoming more and more possible for someone to try a field goal longer than 63 yards and have a chance of making it. Kickers make those in warm-ups and if the conditions are right, watch out.
Coaches will also have to be more careful in how and when they score in the final minutes of a game. Getting a touchdown with 2:30 left to take a two-point lead could lead to defeat because most good quarterbacks can orchestrate a field goal drive to win.
It sure adds a kick to the exciting conclusion of NFL games.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.