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2013 season is becoming the year of the kicker throughout the NFL

By Jeff Zrebiec The Baltimore Sun

8:33 PM EST, December 19, 2013

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As quarterback Joe Flacco yelled out commands to the Ravens' offense late Monday night, Matt Stover yelled at the television.

The Ravens, who trailed the Detroit Lions by one point with under a minute to play, had advanced to the Lions' 43, where they faced fourth-and-8. For about 20 seconds, Ravens coach John Harbaugh kept his offense on the field with the intention of burning a little clock, taking a timeout and then sending his kicker on the field to attempt a 61-yard field goal.

"I'm saying, 'Kick it, you got this. Did you see the 53-yarder [earlier in the game]?,'" said Stover, who kicked 19 seasons in the NFL, 13 of them with Ravens. "He hit the 53-yarder stronger than he did the 61. He got under the 61-yarder a little bit. If you go back and look, he duffed his club a little bit. It just shows you that he kicks the ball so well with his technique that all he has to do is kick it straight and it will go."

Justin Tucker's team-record 61-yarder saved the Ravens' season, further established the second-year player as one of the game's best at his position and highlighted the brilliant state of kicking in today's NFL.

In the era of the quarterback, the 2013 season might just be remembered as the year of the kicker. Footballs are splitting the uprights at stadiums across the country with astonishing accuracy and from greater distances than ever before, prompting some to question whether the league's competition committee should make some changes this offseason to make field goals more difficult.

Through 15 weeks, kickers are making 86.1 percent of their field goals, which would comfortably eclipse the NFL's previous high of 84.5 percent, set in 2008, according to Stats, LLC. They are also hitting more than 65 percent of their attempts from 50-plus yards, which would also go down as a league record.

"I don't think it's surprising," said Tucker, who went 6-for-6 on Monday and has now hit 33 in a row, and 35-of-37 on the season. "I just think guys are getting really, really good at their respective crafts."

No kickers this season have been more productive and busier than Tucker and the New England Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski, whose respective teams meet Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. Since Week 2, Tucker and Gostkowski are a combined 60-of-62 on field-goal attempts, including 13-of-14 from 50 yards and beyond. Gostkowski called Tucker's performance Monday "the best game I've ever heard of or seen" from a kicker.

In past seasons, a 90-percent success rate meant that a kicker was having a Pro Bowl season. This year, it just means that he is keeping pace with the league's new standard. Thirteen kickers are currently hitting 90 percent of their field-goal attempts.

"That's a number that's definitely tough to get," said Gostkowski, who has made 90 percent of his attempts just once over his previous seven seasons but has long been considered one of the better kickers in the league. "There are just so many things that could happen to cause a kick to not be good. Whether it gets blocked or there's bad weather games and stuff like that. The fact that the percentages are going up, it's a good thing for us that play the position but it means the competition and the guys are getting better. You have to fight to stand out these days because so many guys are doing so well."

Last year, nine kickers finished with a success rate of 90 percent or above after only four did it in 2011 and five in 2010.

"Early in the 80's and 90's, if you weren't [making] at least 73 to 80 percent, you were gone," said Stover, who converted 83.7 percent of the field goals in his career. "Now, if you're not 80 to 90 percent, you are probably gone."

What has changed? Both current and former kickers, along with kicking and special teams coaches, say everything, including the importance teams are placing on the position. Six kickers were taken in the past two drafts after only three were selected the previous three years.

"With every year, they are getting better at a younger age and they're coming earlier and earlier to us," said Chris Sailer, a former All-American kicker for UCLA who trains more than 3,000 prospective kickers. "And with every year, the rewards at the end are greater for these guys — more scholarships, more guys getting drafted, more money being paid at the highest level."

Sailer started his kicking and long-snapping camp in 1999 after he realized how tough it was for a high school kicker to get a scholarship. About 14 or 15 kickers or punters that he worked with since they were in high school, including Tucker, the Minnesota Vikings' Blair Walsh and the New York Jets' Nick Folk, are currently kicking in the NFL.

Stover, who runs a kicking camp at McDonogh, said kids are now more advanced coming out of high school than he was when he came out of college and started his pro career in 1991.

When they get to the pros, kickers receive better coaching than ever before as a number of teams have kicking coaches on their payrolls. For the Ravens, Randy Brown fills that role and assists special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. Tucker, who has significantly changed his approach and aiming point since entering the pros, has credited both for his development as a kicker.

"In the 80's and 90's in kicking, there was no coaching," Stover said. "It was all [trial] by fire — go out there and kick."

There are certainly other factors. The kicker, snapper and holder have become such specialized positions and the battery is essentially a team within a team, spending extensive parts of practice working together. The quality of snapping and holding, in particular, has improved drastically over the years.

Between heated fields and the proliferation of field turf throughout the league, kickers have truer surfaces to apply their trade. Then, there's just the natural evolution of athletes — kickers, too, are getting bigger and stronger, while perfecting proper fundamentals and techniques. The Ravens consider Tucker one of the best athletes on their team.

"Guys are stronger, they can kick the ball farther," Gostkowski said. "You can't teach leg strength."

There already have been 86 kicks made from 50 yards or beyond this year, seven shy of an NFL record. The 65.2 percent success rate on such kicks is nearly 10-percent higher than it was in 2000. That has led to talk that the league should make it more difficult on kickers, perhaps narrowing the 18-foot and 6-inches width between the goal posts. Walsh called such talk "ridiculous."

"You look at the quarterback's numbers and they are higher than they've ever been," said Walsh, who set a rookie NFL record last year by making 92.1 percent of his kicks. "Does that mean you're going to put 12 defenders on the field? No. Positions evolve, people get better. Everything sort of comes full circle. I do think there will be a regression at some point but right now, everybody is firing on all cylinders."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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