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Archive for Friday, December 8, 2006

Placekickers setting new standard in NFL

December 8, 2006

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— In 1966, hours after missing a 23-yard field-goal try that would have given the Buffalo Bills a victory, kicker Booth Lusteg took a dejected walk home. Along the way, some Bills fans recognized him. They hopped out of their car, roughed him up and drove away. Team officials later asked Lusteg why he didn't alert the police.

"Because I had it coming," he replied.

These days, fans are more likely to hop out of their cars to give their kicker a hug. Take last weekend, for example, when Rob Bironas boomed a 60-yarder in the final seconds to help the Tennessee Titans upset the Indianapolis Colts, 20-17.

Later that afternoon, Martin Gramatica of the Dallas Cowboys nailed a 46-yarder to topple the New York Giants.

And, in the nightcap, Josh Brown of the Seattle Seahawks drilled a 50-yarder with four seconds remaining against the Denver Broncos for his fourth winning kick of the season.

They are all part of a wave of ridiculously accurate kickers, the rare set of players demonstrably better than previous generations.

Jan Stenerud, who played from 1967 to 1985, was the first pure kicker elected into the Hall of Fame, having made 66.8 percent of his attempts. Such a percentage today might not be enough to stay employed. Just ask Mike Vanderjagt, whom the Cowboys booted after he converted at a 72.2 percent rate.

Based on career percentage, Vanderjagt (86.5) is the most accurate field-goal kicker in history. Everybody else on the top 10 list will be in uniform Sunday, with each owning career marks of at least 80.3 percent.

Kickers are not only connecting more often; they also are connecting from farther away.

Sixteen kickers have made at least five 50-yarders in one season. And all but three accomplished the feat after 1990. The exceptions are Fred Steinfort (1980), Norm Johnson (1986) and Dean Biasucci (1988).

Once upon a time, kickers were hardly so valuable - or reliable. They were regarded as flakes, a reputation that would be unfair were it not so deserved. "It takes a different breed of personality to be a kicker - mentally deficient," said Errol Mann, who completed a 11-year NFL career with the Raiders in 1978.

During the 1950s and '60s, field goals were mostly a side job for position players. Paul Hornung, a halfback, handled kicking chores for the Green Bay Packers, which is how he once racked up 33 points in a game - four touchdowns, six PATs and a field goal.

Tennessee kicker Rob bironas runs off the field after kicking a 60-yard field goal to defeat Indianapolis. Bironas was one of a handful of kickers to boot long game-winning field goals on Sunday.

Tennessee kicker Rob bironas runs off the field after kicking a 60-yard field goal to defeat Indianapolis. Bironas was one of a handful of kickers to boot long game-winning field goals on Sunday.

George Blanda still holds the record for most career point-after tries, but he was better known as a quarterback.

Even Lou "The Toe" Groza had another job: He played tackle for 14 seasons, starting in 1946, before serving exclusively as a kicker for his final seven seasons.

But the kicks were a risky venture, even for those Hall of Famers: Hornung hit 47.1 percent of his career attempts, Blanda 52.7 percent and Groza 57.8 percent.

For comparison's sake, Owen Pochman hit 53.3 percent of his attempts for the 49ers in 2003 and was never heard from again.

The first kicking specialist was "Bootin'" Ben Agajanian, who played from 1945-64. "The Toeless Wonder," as he was also known, lost four toes on his kicking foot while in college, but he would become one of only two players (Hardy Brown is the other) to play in the NFL, the AFL and the All-American Football Conference.

Agajanian's performance as a specialist didn't create an immediate trend. But Pete Gogolak did that when he became the first soccer-style kicker in professional football.

Gogolak was 14 when his family emigrated to America from Hungary in 1957. He made his debut with Buffalo in 1964 and once joked that he should have patented his technique. "I should get 50 cents for every time somebody makes a kick soccer style," he said.

Soccer-style kickers take three steps back and two steps over to attack the ball from the side. Straight-ahead kickers take three steps back and approach the ball from the front.

The straight-ahead style had its moments: Tom Dempsey used it to make a 63-yarder in 1970 (a record now shared by the Broncos' Jason Elam). But the style would fade quickly after the arrival of Gogolak, Garo Yepremian, Stenerud and others.

The last conventional kicker was Mark Moseley, who retired in 1986. (Moseley, like Dempsey, also fared all right. He hit 20 of 21 attempts for the Washington Redskins in 1982 and became the only kicker to win the NFL MVP award.)

Over the years, the rules have changed regarding the use of tees and the placement of the goal posts. But the most dramatic development in the kicking game might be the rise in standards. Players either make the kick - or get drop-kicked out the door.

"When I came into the league, if you made 80 percent of your field goals you were the Pro Bowl kicker," Gary Anderson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2000. "Now, it's changed so much that you almost need to be making 80 percent to keep your job."

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