Baltimore Ravens

Ravens' Justin Tucker exemplifies the rapid evolution of placekicking

Ravens' kicker Justin Tucker warms up before a game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in October.

Steve Smith looked askance at the very premise of the question.

"Really?" the Ravens receiver said when asked if he'll appreciate Sunday's match-up between teammate Justin Tucker and Dan Bailey of the Dallas Cowboys — otherwise known as the two best field-goal kickers the world has yet produced.


"Sorry, I would rather watch … I would rather go to a circus, a carnival, a fair or even a medieval festival and watch cotton candy be made before I watch Justin Tucker and the other guy practice kicking before pregame to see the evolution of kicking," a disbelieving Smith continued.

Kickers have long been the NFL equivalent of your high school's audiovisual club — oddball technicians largely ignored until a glitch emerges at the least opportune moment.


"It's just so funny, the stigma that this position carries," Bailey said in a phone interview after the Cowboys practiced on Thursday.

But Smith's amusing skepticism belies an essential reality for the Ravens and many other teams around the league — Tucker and his peers have used a scientific approach to perfect their craft to a degree that would have been inconceivable a few decades back.

These days, if you don't have a kicker who's a dead shot from 50 yards and beyond, you're at a competitive disadvantage.

"You look across the entire game of football and players are getting bigger, faster, stronger. Schemes are evolving," Tucker said. "Kickers are no different. You're seeing guys becoming more and more specialized."

The Ravens-Cowboys game will pit the NFL's No. 1 defense against its No. 1 offense in a showdown of division leaders. But it will also serve as a minor-key celebration of the NFL placekicker.

Bailey is the most accurate field-goal kicker in history. Tucker, a perfect 22-for-22 through nine games this season, is No. 2.

When we discuss the evolution of pro football, we tend to fixate on the bigger, stronger, faster athletes or the tactical ascent of the forward pass. No species of player, however, has improved more relentlessly than the kicker.

Today's practitioners are not only more accurate than their predecessors, they're routinely splitting the uprights from distances that were considered off limits for decades, except in desperate situations.


If Bailey and Tucker were plopped into the NFL of the 1960s or even the 1980s, they'd register as some strain of alien sorcerers.

Consider that Bailey has made 24 of 32 kicks (75 percent) from 50 yards and out in his career, better than the overall make percentage of Jan Stenerud, the only pure placekicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stenerud, who played from 1967 to 1985, was 17 of 64 (26.6 percent) from 50 yards or farther.

Or compare Tucker to Matt Stover, the Ravens' old reliable for the first 13 years of the franchise. As dependable as Stover was — 83.7 percent overall — he dropped to 70.7 percent from 40-49 yards and 40.6 percent from 50 yards or more.

Tucker has made 89.8 percent from 40-49 yards and 64.7 percent from 50 yards and out.

Of the 20 most accurate kickers in history, 13 are active and five others retired within the last five years.

Though kickers have received negative attention this season for missing extra points and potential game-winning field goals, the general level of performance is so high that you almost have to be perfect, as Tucker has been, to stand out. Make 80 percent, a figure that would've led the league many seasons in the 1970s, and you face criticism. Tucker learned as much in 2015 when he made just four of 10 from 50 yards and out.


"More kickers get better training probably at a younger age," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator. "There are probably more kicking coaches out there teaching guys. I think a lot of kids are better equipped early on, in terms of the proper techniques. They're not just going out there and kicking the ball and that's their technique. We see a lot of college kickers who are very advanced."

Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said, at this point, it's rare for the team to see a kicking prospect who hasn't received years of professional coaching. Gone are the days when kickers learned from their fathers or on their own, through trial and error.

Tucker is an example of that phenomenon. He started working with kicking guru Doug Blevins — who also taught Adam Vinatieri and David Akers —when he was a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Texas.

After one session with the teenager, Blevins, a former Miami Dolphins assistant, told Tucker's parents their son would develop into an NFL kicker.

As he does with all his new pupils, he urged Tucker to focus on repeating the same landing spot for his plant foot.

"Kicking has always been a science, but it's turned into more of a science," Blevins said. "It's just like the evolution of the quarterbacks. Kickers go to training camps at a young age now, and they're so much more prepared."


These days, he trains his charges in a pool as much as on dry land, striving to improve their leg speed, flexibility and balance. He believes we're not far from a time when 60-yard field goals will seem normal for the best kickers, though he's not sure we'll ever see many in games because coaches worry about sacrificing field position.

The science of improved kicking goes beyond the mechanics of striking a ball. Stover cited the improved proficiency of long snappers and holders as key to the evolution of the position.

Rosburg and Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown — a New Jersey mayor in day-to-day life — time every aspect of the field-goal set-up, from snap to contact. They're just as apt to offer pointers to long snapper Morgan Cox and holder Sam Koch as to Tucker.

"We spend so much time outside of our team stuff just working on the efficiency and the timing and stuff like that," Koch said. "And we really pay attention to the details. With that, we dissect everything from Tucker kicking, to his steps, to Morgan's snap locations. Jerry, ever since he got here, he takes stats on everything. He keeps track of it all. That way, in our minds, we can see the following day how we've done and what we can do to improve. … People spend more and more time these days working on the whole system rather than just each segment."

The mere fact the Ravens employ a kicking consultant speaks to the culture under Rosburg.

"You can analyze it a lot of different ways if you have the information," he said. "You find out why is the ball doing this when we're hitting it here? Why is it different when you're hitting it there? Players like feedback. This is an ever-growing endeavor. We're trying never to stand still."


To that end, Tucker reviews film of every kick he hits in a game or in practice. Whether he makes or misses the attempt is merely the jumping off point. Each kick takes about 1.3 seconds, and Tucker breaks that span into components, grading each movement. He hopes the routine will look virtually identical each time.

"I watch everything," he said. "I think kickers get a bad rap for just chilling all week and then doing their thing on Sunday. Maybe that's other kickers, kickers that aren't good. If you're not willing to commit to the process of analyzing your technique each and every day … if you're not analyzing every single thing you do and brushing over it with a fine-tooth comb, you're more than likely not going to be employed for long."

Koch and Cox are right beside him in the process.

"Those guys are getting more attention to detail and attacking their craft in the same way that a quarterback is going to attack looking at his footwork," Tucker said. "I don't know if that was necessarily an emphasis 10 years ago, but it is now."

In Dallas, Bailey — who has worked with the same long snapper for his entire six-year career and the same holder for the last four years — counts himself just as proud of a kicking nerd.

"Guys always ask, 'What do you watch film on?'" he said with a laugh. "But to me, I need to constantly check on any little thing I could improve and not just be satisfied with whether I made or missed the kick. … I love breaking stuff down and diving into the details of kicking."


Of course, some of the story comes back to pure talent, as it always does in the NFL. Stover said kickers are vastly better athletes than they were when he entered the league in 1991. He believes many are fast and coordinated enough that they could have been receivers and defensive backs in previous eras.

Tucker said it's important not to get too bogged down in analysis. As he much as he thinks about his job during the week, he's generally working to quiet his mind during games.

"You still need to be able to use your athleticism to just rip into a ball and let it work for you," he said.

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Tucker attributed his career-best performance this year in part to the greater peace of mind he felt after signing a 4-year, $16.8-million contract in the offseason.

"For me, I wasn't thinking about getting my deal done during the season last year. I would never do that," he said. "But the fact it got done in the summertime, it definitely makes me feel better about everything. It's enabled me to think a little bit more freely and swing a little bit more freely."

That's how he copes with a job that demands near-perfection. He loves the binary nature of it, the fact he could become the hero or the goat on each attempt. He takes pride in the fact his teammates, though they might tease him about his workload during the week, do not want to be in his shoes on Sunday.


In that light, he didn't mind Smith's assessment of kickers one bit.

"To be fair," Tucker said with a big grin, "cotton candy being made is kind of fascinating."