This column is also award-winning writer Frank Deford's weekly sports commentary on NPR.
Of all the strained sports cliches, my favorite was "educated toe." Remember? An accomplished field goal kicker possessed an educated toe. I had a newspaper friend who wrote that a punter had an "intellectual instep," but the copy desk wouldn't allow it. Spoil sports.
However, toes -- those both educated and illiterate -- have been replaced on the gridiron by soccer-style kickers, who boot the pigskin side-footed. When these guys first started coming into the NFL they were often as not little foreigners, and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, who died last week, used to mimic them, calling out in falsetto, "I keeck a touchdown! I keeck a touchdown." Today, though, kickers tend to be good-sized Americans who are more proficient than ever... and so, for that matter, also are the punters.
So far this year, NFL field goal kickers have made 88 percent of their attempts. They've even made two-thirds of their tries from more than 50 yards. That's ridiculous. In any sport, if you have that level of success the game is out of whack. Plus, it's boring. With kicking, football is turning into professional bowling, where most every ball is a strike. And don't get me started on extra points.
I also think the fact that kickers -- placement and punters alike -- are so good that it hurts the game in another way. It encourages football coaches, who are already such cowardly lions, to play even safer. Don't dare go for a first down when it's fourth and short. Bring in the kicker!
Football coaches have more power to affect a game than those in other sports. A baseball manager can change pitchers or put in a pinch hitter. A basketball coach can call time out and set up a play, a hockey coach can pull the goalie. Yes, these coaches in other sports can change strategy, but only football coaches can actually control what's going to happen: keep the ball, go for three points or give it up.
And, as we know only too well, football coaches tend to be scaredy-cats. Fourth and one, everyone is screaming, "go for it," and they send in the kicker. Right? But hey, a coach knows that if he takes a chance and fails, he's going to take heat. If he kicks, he's essentially kicking the can down the road.
Starting several years ago with the work of David Romer, a distinguished economics professor, it's been statistically confirmed that if coaches did go for it more often in short-yardage situations, they'd be more successful over the long haul. But even though the game is more wide-open now, football coaches still use buttoned-down, old-fashioned tactics in those situations. And the fact that the kickers are so much more proficient makes coaches even more prone to turn it over to the highly educated feet on their team.
Come on out there, don't keeck a field goal. Lemme hear it: Go for it!