Higher stakes mean more pressure on kickers in playoffs
INDIANAPOLIS -- Of the 18 podiums constructed for media day at Super Bowl XLVI on Tuesday, none was reserved for a kicker. Perhaps that's because kicker stories typically are as sexy as wives wearing rollers, facial cream, flannel PJs and knee-high socks to bed. (Note to wife: I find such get-ups extremely ... cough, cough ... attractive.)
All kidding aside, the absence of kickers on the choice real estate in Lucas Oil Stadium probably could be traced to the position's minimal impact in the waning seconds of the league's showcase event. In fact, only four of the previous 45 Super Bowls were decided by a made or missed field goal in the final minute.
The first time was 1971, when Jim O'Brien kicked a 32-yarder with five seconds to play to lift Baltimore over Dallas, 16-13. The second was 20 seasons later, when Scott Norwood was wide right on a 47-yard attempt with eight seconds remaining in the Bills' 20-19 loss to the Giants.
Eleven years would pass before another kicker trotted onto the field to decide a Super Bowl in the final seconds; and true to form, Adam Vinatieri, arguably the greatest clutch specialist in postseason history, converted from 48 yards out as the clock expired on the 2001 season to give New England a 20-17 win over St. Louis. Two years later he kicked a 41-yarder with four seconds remaining to give the Pats their second championship in three years, 32-29 over Carolina.
Could this be the first time since that 2003 finale that the title game is decided in the final seconds by a kicker? The scales tilt heavily in that direction when factoring in the conference finals, which were decided by a made and missed field goal. The Giants prevailed against the 49ers on Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal in overtime, and the Patriots escaped against the Ravens when Baltimore's Billy Cundiff was wide left on a 32-yard attempt with 15 seconds to play.
Because the stakes are so much higher in the postseason, it begs the question of whether kickers sometimes buckle beneath the weight of greater expectations?
"Early in the year if you miss a kick and it's only Week 2, it's still a miss and it's still a loss, but you know you have another game to play," says Vinatieri, who signed with the Colts in 2006. "In the playoffs, everything gets escalated tenfold, especially when you're on the road. What you want to do is just focus in on the kick at hand and not really think about what it means and the implications on your season. Of course that's easier said than done. I'm willing to bet that if you had a heart-rate monitor on me in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, my pulse was racing pretty good."
You'd never know it by his production. A career 82.9 percent kicker in the regular season, Vinatieri has converted on 83.3 percent (45 of 54) of his postseason attempts. More impressive, he has been good on 40 of his last 44 kicks, a staggering 90.9 percent success rate considering the heightened stakes. Why is he able to raise his game in circumstances where others struggle?
"There are some people that enjoy the situation or the competitiveness or like to be in that situation and other people don't. I've always said I'd rather win the game by 35 points than have to kick the game-winner, because it's less stressful. You get to sit back and it's fun. But I've always said you can't be fearful of that situation. If it has to come down to a field goal, I'd rather it be me kicking it than the guy on the other sideline, hoping that the other guy doesn't make it. That's what guys like Michael Jordan got; they don't want somebody else taking that final shot. Maybe that's why I've been successful. I don't want to say I'm not afraid of that situation, but I'm not afraid of that situation."
According to the Chargers' media guide, Nate Kaeding entered the 2011 season as the most accurate kicker in league history, at 86.5 percent (173 of 200). However he has converted on just 53.3 percent of his kicks (8 of 15) in the postseason, including being wide right on a 40-yard attempt that would have beaten the Jets in overtime in the 2004 season. He also was 0 of 3 in a 17-14 loss to the Jets two years ago in the playoffs.
"There's obviously a different feel to playoff games, I think anybody would say that," says Kaeding. "But in terms of my situation, I don't really relate the misses I've had in the playoffs to any sort of pressure. Pressure is just something that's always kind of hanging over your head as a kicker. I've made a lot of pressure field goals as well. In the postseason I just haven't been able to perform to the standard that I have in the rest of my career. I see that more as an anomaly as anything.
"I look at those situations as an opportunity more than a burden. I believe I'm the best guy for the situation; I'm thinking, 'I've trained my whole life for this, so just put the ball down, let's snap it and kick it. I want to be the guy that wins this game. Not only do I want to be the one who wins it, but I feel that of all the guys on this team, I'm the one best-equipped to make this happen.' That's truly my mindset as a kicker."
A handful of kickers who were interviewed contended that late-game misses are more about breakdowns in fundamentals than a lack of mettle. Washington's Graham Gano won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top collegiate kicker following his senior season in 2008. He was one of only two players that year to make at least 90 percent of his attempts. However, in his two full seasons with the Redskins he has converted on only 72.4 percent of his attempts.
"It comes down to technique more than anything when a kicker misses at this level," says Gano, who tied a league record in 2010 with three OT field goals. "It's not something that's going on in his head. You could have your plant foot just a half inch forward and that could determine whether you miss it wide right or put it down the middle. It's so detailed at this level. You can get away with some things at the college level that you can't get away with here. The athletes are so much better that there isn't that extra time. The guys coming off the edge are a lot faster and they're more detailed in their work. That's why timing is so important in the NFL. Everything has to be perfect."
Tynes clearly has more experience than Patriots counterpart Stephen Gostkowski in late-game postseason kicks. He twice has earned the Giants a trip to the Super Bowl with an overtime field goal. The other time was January 2008, against the Packers. Both kicks came on the road.
Gostkowski has only one playoff game-winner in the final two minutes -- his 31-yarder with 1:10 to play in January 2007 gave the Patriots a 24-21 victory over the Chargers -- but he has been markedly more accurate than Tynes overall. He has converted on 86.7 percent (13 of 15) of his postseason attempts, while Tynes has made 68.8 (11 of 16) of his attempts.
What this will mean Sunday remains to be seen. Or, as Vinatieri says: "We all miss kicks. You just hope it's not at the wrong time."