Commentary

Toe Tapping: NFL kickers going the distance this season

This has been a season in which NFL kickers and punters have positioned the accent squarely on the first syllable of football. It's the Year of the Kicker, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: November 15, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Andy Lee and Sebastian JanikowskiGetty ImagesBay Area Bombers: San Francisco punter Andy Lee and Oakland place-kicker Sebastian Janikowski are two of the NFL's biggest boomers in a season in which kickers are threatening several distance records.
When Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo fumbled the snap on a late field goal attempt in last season's wild-card playoff loss at Seattle, the impact was huge, at least in Dallas. Not only did the Cowboys' season end, but two weeks later, Bill Parcells retired from coaching.

But those were just the immediate ramifications. Now the impact has grown ... and become more widespread.

That play -- on which, ironically enough, the place-kicker never touched the ball -- is cited as one of the contributing factors for a 2007 season that, thus far, can be summed up in four words:

Year of the Kicker.

Year Of The Kicker

• NFL's STRONGEST LEGS: Who are the league's most powerful kickers? You can't go simply on the numbers. Scouts Inc. pinpoints the biggest boomers: Place-kickers | Punters

• DEATH OF THE COFFIN CORNER: Angle kicking is out. Punting it deep and/or high is in, writes Mike Sando. Story

• WISE GUY: Ray Guy, a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary team and the first pure punter taken in the first round of the draft, discusses the art of kicking. Story

• Scouts Inc.'s Jeremy Green discusses why kickers are having such a special season. Football Today

• Fantasy writer A.J. Mass explains why, no matter how good kickers are perfoming, they're still second-class citizens. Story

Indeed, this has been a season in which NFL kickers and punters have positioned the accent squarely on the first syllable of football. All around the league, we've had Bigfoot sightings. And unlike those of Sasquatch, the trails of these strong-legged kickers and punters are far easier to track.

Such strength is demonstrated in part by the raw number of field goals made so far (3.14 per game) and the lofty conversion rate (81.2 percent). That includes the NFL-record eight successful field goals kicked by the Titans' Rob Bironas in a win against Houston.

Field goals typically are more about accuracy than power, but there certainly has been no shortage of 50-yard efforts this year. In fact, through the first 10 weeks, kickers have hit on 24 of 59 attempts from 50 or more yards, a pace slightly ahead of that of last year. The Texans' Kris Brown connected on attempts of 54, 54 and 57 yards against Miami to tie an NFL single-game record. And were it not for a few inches, another league record would have fallen, as the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski narrowly missed connecting on a 64-yard attempt that hit high on the right upright against Houston.

"It would have went 74 yards or so," Janikowski told Bay Area media after reviewing video of the kick.

Still, more reflective of the leg strength that has been demonstrated in 2007 are the league-wide marks for gross punting average (44.3 yards), net punting average (37.9 yards) and touchbacks on kickoffs (219). Those numbers might not pop out to the average NFL fan, but within the league -- especially among those who do their kicking for a living -- it's like a fireworks display every Sunday.

"It really is pretty amazing," said Rams punter Donnie Jones, who is tied with the 49ers' Andy Lee for the league lead with a 50.0-yard gross average, just ahead of Oakland's Shane Lechler at 49.9. "To have guys averaging almost 50 yards gross and nearly 45 yards net, like Shane is doing ... man, that's a great year."

But why? Why does it seem that punters and kickers are reaching stratospheres previously unseen in the NFL?

One likely reason is an alteration in the use of K-balls, those special kicking balls introduced in 1999 to prevent teams from doctoring their own footballs to gain an advantage. And that brings us back to Romo's botched field goal snap.

Largely because of that play and the suggestion that the K-ball used on the field goal attempt might have been new -- and thus more slippery than the footballs used previously in the game -- the NFL competition committee enacted a rules change for 2007. Instead of rotating the 12 balls designated as K-balls for each game, one ball now is used until is it not available.

Some have theorized that the new rule -- which means K-balls stay in service longer and have the opportunity to become more pliable, as kickers and punters prefer -- might in part account for the increase in distances, both in the punting and kicking games.

[+] EnlargeRob Bironas
Rams Reyna/US PresswireTitans kicker Rob Bironas was successful on a 60-yard kick last season, and holds the NFL record with eight field goals in one game.

Several of those theorists have been NFL punters and kickers themselves.

Said one NFC place-kicker whose touchbacks this season are markedly ahead of his normal pace: "The balls are a lot better. In the past, it's been like kicking a rock. There's definitely a difference this season."

Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell certainly noticed the difference when he attempted a career-long 57-yarder just before halftime against San Diego. That's because he wasn't kicking the K-ball on that attempt.

As a result, Longwell said, the 57-yarder came up just short, allowing the Chargers' Antonio Cromartie to field the kick 9 yards deep in the end zone. Cromartie, of course, didn't stop until he reached the other end zone, completing the NFL-record 109-yard return.

"They put the quarterback ball in," Longwell told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "They didn't put a K-ball in the game. The quarterbacks' [footballs] are a little bit tackier and have better grip. Obviously, the K-ball was flying pretty well."

Still, there are some players who feel the rules change has had no bearing on the increases witnessed in 2007.

"No difference, really," said the 49ers' Lee, a member of the ESPN.com mid-season All-Pro team, who currently is in the midst of a breakout season. "In some cases, honestly, I actually think it's made the situation worse."

Under the previous K-ball rotation system, Lee explained, you might get a stretch of balls, say, those numbered seven through nine, that actually were better than the ones numbered one and two. It was, essentially, the luck of the draw, but there was a certain equality to it.

Now, if football No. 1 is particularly hard, it stays in the game instead of being rotated out. And contrary to popular opinion, it might not become that much more "broken in" as the game proceeds.

[+] EnlargeShane Lechler
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesRaiders punter Shane Lechler is averaging nearly 50 yards a kick and leads the league in net punting at 44.5 yards.

"And so," Lee said, "you're actually kicking a [bad] ball more times."

So if it isn't simply the K-ball factor, then what?

Perhaps kickers and punters are more athletic -- bigger and stronger. The scrawny European import/former soccer player kicker, once in vogue, now is a thing of the past.

In a league that strives for parity, scores now are closer, and that means field goals often decide the difference between winning and losing. Teams have recognized this, which is one reason they are willing to pay a premium for kickers. It's why the Colts signed Adam Vinatieri to a five-year, $12 million deal.

And now that the money is there, bigger athletes are opting to specialize in kicking and punting. Take the Cowboys' kickers. Rookie place-kicker Nick Folk -- the first kicker drafted by the club since Jerry Jones became owner in 1989 -- is 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. Punter Mat McBriar is 6-1, 223. Compare that to buffed-out wide receiver Terrell Owens, who is 6-3, 224. Not a huge difference, at least on the surface.

"Some of the guys coming into the league are bigger, stronger, more athletic and are just kicking the heck out of the ball," said Giants 20-year veteran Jeff Feagles, who is regarded as one of the best hang-time and positional punters ever. "There are some huge legs out there right now."

Using the rosters from the NFL Record & Fact Book as reference, the punters this season are roughly three-quarters of an inch taller and weigh about nine pounds more than their counterparts of 20 years ago.

Lechler, an eight-year veteran who twice has led the NFL in gross punting average and once in net average, and who is the all-time league leader in gross average, is a good example. At 6-2, 225, he is solidly built, thick-legged, but still very athletic.

The emergence of punters who honed their kicking skills in other sports -- such as former Australian football players McBriar, Ben Graham (Jets) and Sav Rocca (Philadelphia) -- also has contributed to the increase in size and leg strength.

Led by Jones and Lee, 10 punters own gross averages of 45.5 yards or more. Five have gross averages of 47.5 yards or better, which would have been good enough to have won the NFL punting title in nine of the past 10 seasons.

In the league's first 87 seasons, only one punter averaged more than 50 yards per kick: Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh, who averaged 51.4 yards in 1940. That was in an era, however, when quick-kicks frequently were used and punters didn't have to worry on such boots about returns.

The three highest gross averages all occurred before 1963. Since the 1970 merger, the highest gross average was the 48.2-yard mark set by McBriar in 2006.

The numbers might shrink a bit when the weather grows colder in many NFL cities and the punting conditions become increasingly more difficult. Still, performances have taken a quantum leap this season. Kickers and punters are putting their best feet forward.

"It used to be that, if I hit a ball 50 yards and with a five-second hang-time, that was pretty good," Jones said. "Now, it seems, the standards have been raised."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.