They call the game “football,” and there’s a reason for that. That was quite apparent to anyone who watched the National Football League’s divisional championship games on Jan. 30.
Placekickers ultimately decided both contests. The previous week, in the divisional semi-finals, three out of four games ended the same way.
Still, in most cases, it was the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, along with the occasional defensive star, who showed up for the post-game interviews. The kicker just did what he was supposed to do, right?
True, the general public apathy towards kickers is somewhat understandable. For one thing, most field goals symbolize failure — the kicker comes out because the rest of the offense has failed to muster a touchdown. Unless it decides the game’s outcome, the resulting field goal is generally considered an afterthought.
Besides, kickers aren’t athletes, right? Couldn’t a lot of people do what they do?
Anyone who says that has never tried to kick a football off the ground for any distance. Unlike a soccer ball, a football is not configured for easy foot contact. The impact with the foot needs to be exact to promote accuracy, and the target is small.
Even if there was no one else on the field but the holder and kicker, the challenge is daunting. When TV offers an angle from behind the kicker, looking towards the distant end zone, the width of the two goalposts seems about as wide as the space between fingers in a flashed peace sign.
And the kicker is not alone. Rather, he has 11 opponents to contend with, all intensely focused on spoiling his kick (or breaking him in half, if possible). Most defensive linemen are 6-foot-5 or taller, which presents problems with the angle of a kick even if they fail to get past the wall of blockers and can only extend their arms.
Meanwhile, the weather proves a factor in many NFL stadiums, especially late in the season. A stiff November wind is often vigorous enough to blow a football off-course after it’s been kicked.
Finally, there is the mental aspect. Other players may be involved in the placekicking process, but the placekicker most feels the laser-like stares of his teammates, his coaches, a stadium full of people, and a widespread television audience. If he misses, it’s all on him.
The most notorious missed field goal came in the 2007 Super Bowl between Buffalo and the New York Giants. After Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood failed on a 47-yarder on the last play of the game, giving the Giants a 20-19 victory, the reaction from Buffalo fans included more than a few death threats.
Without kickers, it would be a different game; In order to score, the offense would need to take the football the length of the field every time. A good kicker means they must only get within 35-40 yards of the goalposts. In that sense, the kicker is often the tip of the offensive spear. This becomes especially important in the final minutes of a close game, even more so overtime.
Even with this, however, it’s a safe bet that the conversation among pro football pundits prior to Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals will not be about the relative abilities of the two kickers. But maybe it should be.
The Rams’ Matt Gay has attempted 34 field goals this season and made 32. Evan McPherson of Cincinnati, who happens to be a rookie, has succeeded 28 times in 33 attempts. Turn maybe five or six of those successful kicks into misses, and chances are their teams would not have advanced to the final challenge.
Gay and McPherson probably can’t outrun any of their team’s wide receivers or running backs, nor could they bench press as much weight as a linebacker or tackle. They don’t make as much money as most of their teammates, and you rarely see them interviewed.
Nevertheless, given recent NFL history, there will be times on Sunday when none of that will matter. That’s why it’s called “football.”