The $50,000 Quick Fix Every NFL Team Should Make Right Now

One kick can swing a game or a season, but a shockingly small number of NFL teams devote all the resources to the position that they could.
Author:
Publish date:

In news that might have slipped under the radar after Week 1, had the Browns not been given the spotlight of Thursday Night Football this week, Cleveland released kicker Austin Seibert after missing a field goal and an extra point in a 32-point loss to the Ravens.

Seibert, who has the most points by a kicker in FBS history and made the PFWA’s All-Rookie team after making 25 of his 29 field goals last season, was viewed as an ascending talent in the league not too long ago. He earned that reputation in Cleveland, which has a notoriously difficult stadium (natural grass) and environment (outdoors, cold weather) to kick in. Spoiled by the tenure of Phil Dawson, the Browns have serially dismissed kickers ahead of their time instead of realizing that 86% is pretty darn good, given the circumstances.

It’s an all-too-common occurrence around the NFL—a kicker has one bad game, one missed kick, one unfortunate moment and he’s gone, replaced by the next man up in a rotating carousel of waiting for the next slot to open up. Teams spend money flying in new kickers, have a bunch of them try out and pick one based on vague criteria, like how the ball looks coming off his foot. And then they repeat the process all over again. This might be especially prevalent in 2020, when kickers are off to a historically bad start, which, according to CBS NFL research, included missed field goals in every single opening-weekend game except for Packers-Vikings.

It’s one of those NFL things that seems so normal we don’t even question it, when in reality, it might be one of the most totally absurd parts of the league’s operating procedure. And, thanks to input from some people deeply involved in the kicking game, I’m going to propose a one-time, $50,000 fix that most owners can make to shore up their placekicker situation and avoid the constant shuffle (not to mention, during the COVID-19 pandemic, an intensely complicated state of play for available free agents that involves flying through airports and clearing testing protocol) and game-day frustration.

But first, let’s talk about nerves.

Jay Feely, a CBS analyst and former NFL kicker who spent time on seven rosters, took me through the prekick anxiety loop that he knows can bounce around in a kicker’s head. It’s pretty traumatic. Imagine thinking this before doing an important task at your job:

If I miss this kick, I might get cut. And if I get cut we’ll have to sell our house and move. And if we sell our house and move, our kids are going to have to change schools again, and they’ll be upset because they’ve made friends …

While every NFL player’s role is theoretically on the line every week, kickers are the only ones viewed as perpetually replaceable, lending truth to the nightmares they might imagine themselves before every kick. You’re not going to cut a quarterback for making one really bad throw. You’re probably not going to cut an offensive lineman for one really bad block. On the other hand, you condition kickers to understand that they will be released after making a mistake. Remember what Rex Ryan said about Cody Parkey last year? While, if I was an NFL coach, I would never sign up for Ryan speaking for the lot of us, this you had one job, I don’t feel sorry for you attitude pretty much sums up the inherent workplace environment these guys are dealing with. The never-ending nightmare of believing every kick could spell disaster for your family is somewhat legitimized.

Moving past nerves, here’s another interesting side note: An extremely small percentage of NFL teams have kicking coaches. When Adam Stites first raised this question in a fascinating SB Nation piece in 2017, there was only one in the NFL. So when a kicker is struggling during a game, or if something feels off, or if they aren’t ready but don’t feel like they can talk to their overworked tyrant of a head coach about it, there’s nowhere to turn. Kickers are like patients in need of therapy who are sent a booklet of noninsured orthodontists to pick from and told, “Good luck.”

“You have a special teams coach and an assistant special teams coach,” Feely says. “And most of the time, none of them have any intimate knowledge about kicking and the mechanics, and how to actually correct a problem. Imagine if your quarterbacks coach didn’t know how to correct the mechanics of your quarterback. If he literally had no idea the quarterback was struggling or why he’s throwing balls short every time.

“And that’s the case for kickers on most NFL teams.”

So what’s the alternative to the familiar cut-and-paste routine? For one, not releasing a kicker after a bad game and instead trying to understand why they missed the kick is a good head start. In 2020 especially, considering that no preseason meant no under-pressure repetitions for these specialists, a little perspective might come in handy. But hiring a kicking coach is another solution. Feely, for example, says he’s told other teams that they wouldn’t even have to do it full time. Just bring in a consultant three days a week at an hourly rate, which he estimated could be done for $50,000. Find someone who has kicked before, who can talk to these guys about kicking. Someone who knows what to say before a big kick. Someone who can recognize some small mechanical flaw in the fragile golf-swing windup these guys replicate before every kick.

Teams that have made the investment have already seen the payoff. Chris Gould, the Broncos’ assistant special teams coach and brother of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, has played a gigantic part in the development of Brandon McManus, a twice-cut undrafted free agent out of Temple who landed in Denver in 2014 (Gould arrived in 2015).

justin-tucker-2020-playoffs

Justin Tucker (9) reacts after making a field in the divisional round against the Titans.

Justin Tucker, unquestionably the best kicker in professional football over the past few seasons, also has a kicking coach, Randy Brown, who first came to Baltimore as a consultant for kickers in 2008. John Harbaugh, a long-time special teams coordinator, recognized the knowledge gap most head coaches and special teams coordinators have when it comes to kickers and made the hire. Tucker told the team website in 2019 of Brown: “I owe a large part of my individual success to Randy Brown, absolutely. Randy came in my second day of training camp my rookie year, and he changed the type of kicker that I was.”

Rob Roche, Tucker’s agent, has cornered a niche in the NFL market by representing a high volume of specialists like Brett Maher, Aldrick Rosas and Justin Rohrwasser, the Patriots’ fifth-round pick in 2020 who is currently on their practice squad. says Brown has been instrumental in walking Tucker through some of the most difficult parts of his job.

“Randy can talk to Justin through everything,” he says. “Through his whole routine. He gets him right so he’s doing the same thing on every kick. It’s another set of eyeballs to know exactly what to look for when the kicker is kicking.

“The proof is in the pudding. Look at how much success Justin has had there.”

While some teams do not release data on consultants, it appears that there are only a few— like, four—kicking coaches in the NFL. The Buccaneers, after the Roberto Aguayo misfire, brought in kicking specialist Chris Boniol, who was perfect on two field goals and three extra points in the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX victory. The Broncos and Ravens have kicking coaches. The Patriots have Joe Houston, who they added in early 2020. The former USC placekicker was known at Iowa State as the “kicking whisperer.” The Bears announced Jamie Kohl as their kicking consultant a year ago after a rocky ride through the replacement of Parkey, though he is not currently listed under the coaching staff on the team’s website.

The trend during the era of COVID-19, for now, seems to be using new roster-expansion rules to have a kicker on the practice squad and continue the cruel, self-devouring and Darwinist nature of keeping the position stocked. Now a bad day in practice can essentially result in an immediate replacement.

Good coaches talk often about developing talent. But the logic breaks down when you apply it to only the people who score about 66% of your points. Kickers, for now, remain a psychologically tortured outlier without much reprieve.

So, for the owner out who’s there tired of losing games by 1–3 points, take our free (or, I guess, $50,000 advice): In 2020, when we all could use a little hand, don’t forget about the kickers, too.