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Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s first attempt in playoff loss to Bills was good — at least for a split-second

If you needed more proof that football is a game of inches, look no further than Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s first field-goal attempt in Saturday night’s 17-3 divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills.

On the opening drive, the Ravens marched 52 yards on 12 plays, including three straight runs of nine-plus yards. The drive stalled inside the 30-yard line — a familiar theme for the Ravens that night — before Tucker lined up for a 41-yard field-goal attempt.

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Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, entered the game a perfect 11-for-11 on attempts inside 50 yards in the postseason. So the surprise on his face said it all when his kick smacked the left upright and fell to the ground, costing the Ravens a chance to take an early lead.

Upon further review, the kick was closer to being good than originally thought.

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Michael Lopez, a data and analytics expert for the NFL and lecturer of statistics at Skidmore College, traced the path of kick, which showed the center of the football crossing the end line before boomeranging back into the field of play. It nearly hit both uprights and the crossbar — a rare triple-doink — before falling to the turf in front of the officials.

So why didn’t it count? According to the NFL rulebook — Section 4, Article 1, Part C — “the entire ball must pass through the vertical plane of the goal, which is the area above the crossbar and between the uprights or, if above the uprights, between the outside edges. If the ball passes through the goal, and returns through the goal without striking the ground or some object or person beyond the goal, the attempt is unsuccessful.”

Lopez — who notes that Tucker misses the center of the upright by an average of 1.15 yards, at least a half-yard more accurate than every other NFL kicker — estimated that it was a combination of factors that led to the kick’s strange path.

“My best guess?” he tweeted. “I’m no physicist, but (i) the wind pushed the ball off it’s trajectory and to the left and (ii) the ball’s momentum carried it across the end line after hitting the upright, only for the deflection, wind, and ball rotation to carry it back across.”

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Tucker said after the game that he can usually tell when the ball hits his foot whether the kick will be good. With the wind whipping in unpredictable ways in Orchard Park, New York, on Saturday night, it was tough to figure out.

“I think it was quite apparent that it was difficult to get the ball to go where you wanted it to go, kicking or throwing the ball,” said Tucker, who also missed a 46-yard attempt before hitting a 34-yarder at the end of the first half. “Anytime you’re putting the ball up in the air and subjecting it to the wind when it’s that significant, it’s simply just going to have an effect. And sometimes you don’t know what that effect will be.”

The broadcast angle showed just how unpredictable the wind was. When the ball neared the uprights, the flags at the top of the goal post were limp. But from the wide view, the flags at the other end of the field were whipping strongly to the left.

“The wind was very impactful; you could see it for both kickers,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “The wind … It was a tough, very challenging wind out there, really in both ends, but especially into the end away from the tunnel.”

Tucker’s two missed field goals didn’t end up mattering to the final score — the Ravens lost by 14 points. But if the Ravens led 9-3 at halftime instead of being tied with Buffalo at 3, who knows what might have happened.

“What’s important is finding a way to put the ball through the posts, regardless of the difficulty of the conditions that we’re facing,” Tucker said. “I’ve said this before, but accountability is key. And at the end of the day, my job is to make the kick, no matter what the circumstance. And I just didn’t do that last night.”

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