Justin Tucker doesn’t know how far he’ll be able to kick a football Sunday, because he doesn’t know how far he’ll be asked to kick one. The Ravens kicker did not go into Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions expecting to end the game with the NFL’s longest-ever field goal, and he won’t go to Denver expecting to kick one 5, maybe even 10 yards farther, even though he knows it is possible, very possible indeed.
The life of a kicker requires attention to detail, adherence to technique and an understanding that so much of your job is beyond your control. The line between history and a possible Hail Mary in Detroit was not more than a few feet. A day after Tucker doinked his record-breaking 66-yard field goal through the uprights in Ford Field, coach John Harbaugh said a kick any farther downfield would’ve been too far to consider attempting. Not even from, say, 68? he was asked.
“I don’t know how you make a 68-yarder,” Harbaugh said. “But, then again, how do you answer that? You can’t really answer it.”
All the most accurate kicker in league history could do in the days after he kicked the longest field goal in league history was prepare for what might be asked of him. It could be extra-point attempts and kickoffs against the undefeated Broncos. Or, in the league’s most kicker-friendly stadium, it could be a field-goal attempt that would have seemed inconceivable only a week ago.
Ten years into Tucker’s singular career, there is no calculus for determining the outer limits of the NFL’s most dependable leg. Three-plus hours before his career-long attempt in Detroit, during pregame warmups, Tucker was twice short from 65 yards. “Thankfully,” he said afterward, “we found an extra yard and a half.”
Making history was hard work. The actual act of kicking a weirdly shaped ball weighing 14 to 15 ounces through goal posts 66 yards away, 10 feet off the ground and 18 feet, 6 inches apart demands perfection — “a perfect ball, a perfect snap, a perfect hold and a perfect kick,” as Harbaugh said Sunday.
There has to be good timing, too, and not just the 1.3 seconds or so that most field-goal operations require from snap to kick. There are only so many sets of circumstances under which a coach could reasonably send a kicker out past the midfield logo in hopes of scoring three points.
The risks grow with every additional yard a field goal must cover. In stepping back and adding a crow hop before his game-winner Sunday, Tucker gave Detroit a split-second longer to breach the Ravens’ line, to get a finger on the ball. And if he missed short, as he had pregame? Hours earlier, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Jamal Agnew had caught a 68-yard field-goal attempt from Arizona Cardinals kicker Matt Prater — whose 64-yarder in Denver eight years ago set the NFL record — 9 yards deep in the end zone and returned it for a 109-yard score at the end of the first half.
“It is something that we have to prepare for if we are in a situation where we have to kick long field goals,” Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton said Thursday. “It’s something you want to work on. I think we’ve all seen the play from this week in Jacksonville. Those guys have got to get out, and we’ve got to cover, and we have a certain way in which we do that to get our guys down the field. You almost have to expect that in long field-goal situations, especially at the end of the half.”
Then there’s the matter of trust. Jay Feely, a former Pro Bowl kicker, said that before every game in his playing career, he’d tell a special teams coach and his head coach where he felt comfortable kicking from. Depending on the wind, the field, his leg, it might be a maximum of 55 yards in one direction and 52 yards in the other.
“Basically, what you’re telling the coach is, anytime you call a field goal inside that range, it’s on me to make it,” said Feely, now an NFL analyst for CBS. “If you’re going to ask me to kick one outside of that range, maybe I can make it, but I’m telling you, you’re outside of my range.”
With Tucker, there is no rangefinder. Entering Week 3, he had made just one field-goal attempt from 60-plus yards in his career, a 61-yarder in Detroit he booted through eight years ago. And when he got to 65 yards during his warmups, he stopped. He was loose enough. Make or miss from deep, it didn’t matter much. Tucker wouldn’t have to try again for a long time. And he wouldn’t need to tell anyone that he felt comfortable or uncomfortable going for it.
In Baltimore, there is an implicit understanding of his powers. “Again,” Horton said, “it’s Justin.” Tucker trusts Horton and special teams coach Randy Brown to communicate to Harbaugh his potential range. He trusts Harbaugh to call on him when he’s needed, and to call him off the field when he’s not. He trusts long snapper Nick Moore to deliver an accurate ball. He trusts punter Sam Koch to catch it, place it and spin it, laces out. And he trusts himself to make whatever kick the Ravens entrust him with kicking.
“The conversation that somebody on the outside might think that we’re having doesn’t really happen quite like that,” Tucker said in an interview Friday. “Whatever situations unfold throughout the course of the game, Randy, Chris, Harbs, they have a really good idea for how the ball has been coming off my foot in pregame.”
He added: “At the end of the day, we’re just expected to go out and execute when called upon.”
Expectations might change this weekend. There is no better place in the NFL to kick for distance than Mile High. When Feely was kicking for the Cardinals in the early 2010s, Arizona played in Denver in the preseason. “I loved it,” he said. Feely recalled nailing field goals from 70-plus yards during warmups, trying to outkick the Broncos’ Prater as they went through the paces together in the Mile-High City.
There, altitude is an advantage. The air density in Denver is normally about 15% less than the air density at sea level. With lower density, there’s less drag. With less drag, the farther an object flies.
Chase Pfeifer, the CEO of Dashr Motion Performance Systems, wrote his dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the “Biomechanical Investigation of Elite Place-Kicking.” He said that even a 2% difference in air density can be a “significant” difference for kickers, who strike balls with their legs moving upwards of 40 mph at contact.
Feely estimated that a ball kicked in Denver under optimal weather conditions — warm temperatures, low humidity, clear skies, all on the forecast for Sunday afternoon — might carry as many as 8 yards farther than otherwise. Throw in Tucker’s booming right leg, Pfeifer said, and the Ravens would have the “secret recipe” for the NFL’s first 70-yard field goal. Tucker understands the science, too.
“Anytime you’re kicking in altitude, throwing the ball in altitude, when you are sending a ball through thinner air, the physics supports that it will just go farther,” Tucker said. “So, yeah, in my experience, the several times we’ve had the opportunity to go play football games in Denver, the ball does tend to carry anywhere from 5 to 10 yards farther, just depending on how you hit it.”
Feely joked that Tucker’s warmups Sunday should be live-streamed, “because I bet he goes back to 75 [yards].” Tucker couldn’t say for sure whether that was the plan; even if he did blow past his record mark before kickoff, he said it wouldn’t be “to put on a show.” His is a fact-finding mission.
Tucker wants to see how the wind is blowing. He wants to study how the ball carries, from beginning to middle to end. He wants to familiarize himself with the sightlines in both end zones. He wants to make sure he can kick a ball not only far enough, but also straight enough. “Every piece of data that I can gather before we kick the ball off to start the game,” Tucker said, “can certainly be helpful.”
He wants, more than anything, to make his kicks, no matter the spot on the field, no matter the time on the clock. He also knows he probably won’t be asked to set an NFL record for the second straight week. That doesn’t mean Tucker wouldn’t like a shot.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
“It is fun to just see the ball just get blasted off my foot and go 75 yards in the air,” he said. “I mean, it is kind of fun, because you can’t really do that in a lot of places.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 1