Baltimore Ravens

As 'imperfections' in NFL kickers surface, Ravens' Justin Tucker remains strong and steady

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker leaves the field after kicking the winning field goal in overtime to beat the Steelers.

With his three-field-goal, game-winning performance Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers already complete, and another AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor on the way, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker spent Sunday with teammates and team officials enjoying as much football as the rest of us.

Seemingly all weekend long, he saw his NFL peers walk off the field with sunken shoulders after errant field-goal and extra-point attempts, part of a league-wide downturn that's just as liable to give a kicker heartburn as the chili and jambalaya on the menu at Tucker's Sunday watch party.


"You want to see everybody just do well," Tucker said. "You want to see everybody make their kicks, and you hope the best for everybody.

"But that's just the duality of this league if you're a place-kicker. That's the duality of the position. If you play long enough, you're going to miss one or two."


Tucker didn't miss any kicks Thursday, and has missed just once, from 50 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals, in 11 attempts this year. But Steelers kicker Josh Scobee's pair of costly misses against the Ravens set off a week of 14 missed-field goal and four missed extra-point attempts, the second-most missed kicks in a week since 2010.

The NFL's field-goal percentage this season dropped to 83.5 — still the fourth-highest mark for a year ever, though it lags behind the historic rates of 2013 (86.5 percent) and 2014 (84 percent).

"I have a lot of confidence in them," Ravens special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg said of Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox. "I don't know if it's a luxury. I think it's a necessity."

In Tucker, under the tutelage of Rosburg and consultant Randy Brown, the Ravens have a kicker with a consistent swing, a powerful leg and a nearly flawless operation around him.

Elsewhere, six teams already have replaced their kickers this season, and as misses mount around the league, the kicking community is searching for an explanation.

Gary Zauner, a former special teams coach with the Ravens, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals and longtime kicking consultant who now coaches privately, said NFL teams are forsaking accuracy and experience for the leg strength that can boom kickoffs into and through the end zone for touchbacks.

Tucker is uniquely skilled: He's the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history (89.9 percent) and leads the league this year with 20 touchbacks.

Veteran kickers such as the Indianapolis Colts' Adam Vinatieri and Atlanta Falcons' Matt Bryant are responsible for only field goals; their team's punter handles kickoff duties. Many other teams are forced to decide between having a touchback machine or a reliable field-goal kicker.


"Most of the NFL coaches don't know [anything] about kicking, and most of the coaches are trying to get the best of both worlds," Zauner said. "They want the good kicker with the big leg because of the touchback rule. … A lot of these coaches are giving up a little of the field goals for the distance. So their imperfections seem to show up a lot more on the extra points and in the field goals."

Longtime NFL kicker Jay Feely, now a CBS Sports Network college football analyst, agreed. He thinks that when kickoffs were moved up to the 35-yard line in 2011, "coaches got enamored with not having to cover and allowing their team to be healthier because of that.

"That's all well and good until you get into the fourth quarter and you need to make a field goal to win a game."

At that point, young legs have faltered. First-year kickers such as recently released Kyle Brindza (6-for-12 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the New Orleans Saints' Zach Hocker (7-for-9), Jacksonville Jaguars' Jason Myers (5-for-7) and San Diego Chargers' Josh Lambo (7-for-8) have missed important kicks and extra points.

But several veteran kickers have struggled, too, and Feely believes moving the extra-point attempt from a 20-yard kick to 33 yards is to blame. He called the old attempts "in-game practice" to help get into a groove, but with results now in question, kickers don't have that luxury.

"You weren't going to miss it unless it was an atrocious kick, and NFL kickers weren't going to do that," Feely said. "So I think that's taken away some of the comfort level for some of the guys, and that's not an excuse, by any means — your job as a kicker is to make those kicks."


Tucker sees some truth in Feely's theory but points out that his first kick might be from near midfield, or not until the third quarter. He also won't acknowledge having given any less attention to an extra point in the past

"The way that we operate, anytime we're putting points on the board, it's the most serious thing that we're doing," he said. "Every single point is so valuable."

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Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a longtime special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, said it's a challenge kickers need to embrace.

"I'd love to go out and play golf and have some easy putts to start my round off," Harbaugh said. "It doesn't usually work out that way. So I think it helps the cream rise to the top. If their job is a little bit tougher, then they need to be a little bit better. … It'll be interesting to see the ones that respond."

So far, Tucker has. The NFL's early field-goal percentage leader board includes mainstays like Tucker and the New England Patriots' Steven Gostkowski, Seattle Seahawks' Steven Hauschka, Chicago Bears' Robbie Gould, Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski and Dallas Cowboys' Dan Bailey.

Feely said that top class of kickers will further distinguish itself from the rest of the league with the new rules.


"It'll benefit those kickers that can handle it and are the elite in both the way that they're viewed as well as contractually," Feely said. "They're going to get rewarded more. … [Tucker] has earned it. He's earned it with big kicks in pressure moments, and he's come through for his team. He's a very talented guy, he's got a big leg and he can make the long kick, but more than anything, he's been consistent, and consistently excellent."