Bad kicks can kill title dreams
Jay Feely is getting his kicks during the New York Jets’ playoff run.
Meanwhile, some of his peers are now home kicking themselves.
It’s no coincidence that the four teams in this weekend’s conference title games have specialists with perfect postseason field-goal percentages. Six of the eight eliminated squads had kickers who missed at least one attempt in those season-ending losses.
Playoff kickers are 15-of-26 overall for a success rate of 57.7 percent. Since the NFL switched to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the lowest postseason percentage was 65.2 in 1991.
Feely has come through for the Jets by making both of his field goals and capably handling New York’s punting chores when Steve Weatherford was sidelined for a first-round win over Cincinnati. Feely also watched from the sideline as two of the NFL’s most reliable kickers imploded. Shayne Graham botched 35- and 28-yard attempts in Cincinnati’s 27-17 loss. San Diego’s Nate Kaeding was just as bad. The most accurate field-goal kicker in league history at 87.2 percent, Kaeding misfired from 36, 57 and 40 yards in New York’s 17-14 win.
“I don’t really have an answer why these guys have had bad days when they’ve normally done real well,” Feely said Tuesday night in a telephone interview. “I don’t know if it’s the pressure. I’ve been there before in that same situation as Nate. When you miss the first one and then you miss a long one, it’s really hard to come back and not let the first two impact the third one.”
While weather can influence performance, kickers have felt the heat all season. The playoff problems are a carryover from increased miscues in 2009. After eight years of rising field-goal percentages, the success rate this season dipped to 81.3 from 84.5 in 2008. Seven teams — Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Washington and Tampa Bay — made performance-based decisions to change kickers during the regular season. Trusted veterans like Houston’s Kris Brown, Jacksonville’s Josh Scobee and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby also had their worst campaigns to date.
As a 13-year NFL special teams coach who now privately trains kickers and punters (www.coachzauner.com), Gary Zauner believes a combination of factors have led to the decline. When things go wrong, one element that often gets overlooked is the performance of the holder and long snapper. The same goes for injury. Position players can battle through leg and back problems, but those ailments take a heavier toll on specialists.
Arizona’s Neil Rackers was still black and blue from a groin injury entering the playoffs. He had more misses in two playoff games (two) than during the regular season (one). Rackers — who has 19 career field goals of at least 50 yards — didn’t reach the goal-post on a 50-yard attempt Saturday against New Orleans inside a domed stadium.
“When he came up short, I was like, ‘He’s hurt for sure,’” Feely said.
Zauner said injuries often cause kickers to change their mechanics — something that can go unnoticed by a special teams coach without a keen eye for technique. Zauner believes some physical problems are caused by kickers and punters being overworked in the preseason because the NFL’s 80-man roster limit pushes teams to sign position players instead.
“Once you start to miss, you lose confidence with where the ball is really going to go,” said Zauner, who coached Rackers with Arizona in 2006.
Zauner also pointed to another problem that could have a negative long-term effect on the NFL: The lack of a developmental league. Outside fringe organizations like Arena League 2 or the UFL (where Zauner coached in 2009), kickers have nowhere to ply their craft in game situations and become accustomed to performing in the clutch. There is no more NFL Europa for players like Adam Vinatieri, who later became the most storied Super Bowl kicker in NFL history with two late game-winning field goals for New England.
“There are a lot of guys who can play good golf and win this-and-that PGA event,” Zauner said. “But when it comes to winning the Masters or U.S. Open, there’s a new pressure. You see guys miss putts and do things they’ve never done before because of the stress.”
This may not bode well for the Saints entering Sunday’s NFC championship game against Minnesota. Second-year kicker Garrett Hartley has only one postseason field goal — and that came with New Orleans holding a 35-14 third-quarter lead against Arizona. Minnesota’s Ryan Longwell has made 17 of 23 postseason attempts in his 13-year NFL career. That includes two short field goals in Sunday’s 34-3 rout of Dallas, which was plagued by two misses from late-season signee Shaun Suisham.
There are three battle-tested kickers on the AFC squads, but only two will be active. Vinatieri has been replaced on Indianapolis’ game-day roster by Matt Stover, the 20-year veteran signed in October when the former was injured. As for the Jets, Feely said he has drawn inspiration from Vinatieri’s last-second heroics while with the Patriots.
“Obviously, I’d rather have my team up by 14 points going into the last minute,” Feely said. “But I would love to be in that situation where I would get the opportunity to make that kind of kick. Hopefully, I’d do my best and come through.”
That would be a pleasant change considering the NFL’s postseason kicking woes.