Kickers can thank Romo for unprecedented prosperity
Tony Romo, by virtue of his botched hold in last season's playoffs, has indirectly produced the greatest kicking season in history, writes John Clayton.
A little less than a year has passed since Tony Romo's botched field goal hold that changed the NFL in more ways than most realize.
Dwight Clark had The Catch. Romo's known for the Non-Catch.
Little did we know Romo, the latest catch of Jessica Simpson, would be the subliminal winner of special teams player of the year. Although that is not an official title, Romo deserves some indirect credit for perhaps the greatest kicking year in history.
A quick recap: In last season's wild-card playoffs, the Cowboys quarterback had a slippery football slide through his hands as the holder on what should have been a game-winning field goal against the Seahawks. The ball appeared to be right out of the factory box. Stadium lights shined off the surface. With a chill in the Seattle air, the ball was too slick for Romo to handle.
From that game produced new procedures. K-balls -- balls only used by kickers during games -- are now numbered 1-12. Equipment men from both teams have a 20-minute period prior to games to rub down the balls to make them more manageable for snappers, holders and kickers. In the NFL, little things can have big impacts, and this little thing helped make kickers better than ever.
• After 15 weeks, the 81.7 percent field goal accuracy is the best in NFL history. In Week 15, with multiple games being played in the worst and coldest conditions of the year, only seven field goals were missed in the 13 afternoon games. Twenty-four kickers are hitting better than 80 percent of their field goals and four are topping 90 percent.
• Shane Lechler of the Raiders and Andy Lee of the 49ers earned trips to the Pro Bowl by bringing back memories of Ray Guy, perhaps the greatest punter ever. Lechler has averaged 49 yards a punt, Lee 48.3. Even more impressive is the net average results of their work. Lee has a staggering 42.41 net, Lechler 41.3. No punter has netted more than 40 yards a punt in NFL history.
In reality, it's not the K-balls making these kickers better, it's the kickers, but the level playing field created by having consistent footballs has put the "special" back in special teams. That might not have happened were it not for Romo.
"If that would have been a punter out there holding, though, they might not have changed the rule,'' Browns kicker Phil Dawson said.
Accidents can be the mother of invention. In 2006, Romo was the only remaining starting quarterback holding on kicks. Jake Plummer of the Broncos did it, but he eventually lost his starting job to Jay Cutler and has since retired. Backup quarterbacks and punters usually handle the assignments because they have more time to work with place-kickers and hone the holding craft.
The NFL went to K-balls to stop cheating. Those stories reached legendary proportions. In the pre-K-ball days, game balls were given to teams for preparation during the week. The scenes were hysterical.
Kickers would go beyond just rubbing down footballs to create better surfaces. Some kickers put them in dryers to soften the leather. Others spent hours dunking balls in hot tubs. My favorite was the weights: One kicker would hold the ball while another would take 35- or 45-pound weight and beat the ball into submission. It looked like a scene out of "Rocky."
Tales of these tactics spread throughout the league to a point where the competition committee had to react. The penalty was to leave kickers out in the cold. The NFL took the game balls away from kickers and quarterbacks and made them work with ones virtually out of the box. Officials would rub them down before the game, but they weren't going to be as vigilant about the process as the players. Their jobs aren't kicking.
The current system isn't perfect, but it's about as good as it gets. The balls are numbered K-1 through K-12, and most crews just use the K-1 ball until it's lost in the stands. Some kickers this year have said they've been involved with an officiating crew that might rotate the balls a little more. Thus, kickers have to make decisions. Do they tell equipment men to rub down K-1 or K-2 exclusively during their 20 minutes or do they distribute the time working on K-1-12?
Regardless, the system makes a difference. A year ago, the league followed recommendations by Peyton Manning and other top quarterbacks to let them treat game balls until the Super Bowl. It helped. Manning entered playoff games confident he consistently would get a football that wasn't too slick. The result was a trip to the Super Bowl and a victory.
"What it has done is reduce the range of different balls you might have,'' Dawson said of the K-ball change. "You still run into some problems. The refs only allow 20 minutes to prepare the ball and you have to decide how many you want prepared. It helps in determining your range for that day if you know what kind of balls you are going to get. If the coach asks you the range, you want to be able to say it's 52 yards, but you don't want to say that if the ball is a certain way and you might hit it 5 yards short.''
Football traditionalists might not like kickers, but they are better than ever. More attention is given to special teams in practice and in the offseason programs. Kickers lift. If they have problems, they can work with kicking specialists or specialized coaches.
"We're finally living up to expectations,'' 49ers kicker Joe Nedney said. "When I came into the league, making 65 percent of your field goals was OK. Now, if you're kicking 65 percent, you're in trouble. Guys are getting better coaching. They are working on the mental aspects of the game. Their techniques are more refined. Kicking has become so much more important in winning and losing games."
"I compare it to when the long jump record was broken,'' Dawson said. "That record stood forever. Then Bob Beamon breaks the record and three more times in a short period of time it was broken. I think the bar has been raised for kickers. Everyone knows it's possible to make 90 percent of your field goals in a season. More emphasis is made on the kicking game. Look at the AFC.''
AFC kickers are making an unbelievable 84.7 percent of their field goals. The bar has been raised high. Romo had a part in it, but the kickers are having a ball -- thanks to the K-ball.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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