Somewhere, probably on a soccer field in middle Europe, a young man with an unpronounceable name, a strong right leg and a firm conviction that all footballs are round, is preparing to become the most valuable player in the 1984 Super Bowl. In time, he will be discovered by a National Football League scouting party as he kicks soccer balls into orbit. He will be brought back to the U.S. and given a smattering of English, an introduction to our football and basic instruction on how to put on his helmet without shearing off his ears.
Eventually, late on a mid-January Sunday, our hero will kick a 68-yard field goal with 10 seconds to play to win the Super Bowl and spend the rest of the year selling slathers of rugs to his hometown fans. The final score will be five field goals to four—and not a touchdown will be scored the entire afternoon.
The scenario is not that farfetched. Pro football is already becoming a duller sport as the cautious strategy of the field goal—made possible by side-winding soccer booters and highly specialized homegrown kickers—has assumed, for a variety of reasons, disproportionate importance in the scheme of the game. Last year, for instance, there were 114 fewer touchdowns scored in the pros than there were six years ago. But there were 141 more field goals. In 1967 there were an average of 1.97 field goals per game. Midway through this season that figure is just above three—an increase of more than 50%.
The era of the field goal began, as nearly as one can put a date to such things, in 1966 when the NFL's New York Giants pirated Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian-born soccer-style kicker and perhaps the best field-goal artist of the day, from the Buffalo Bills of the AFL. The larceny precipitated full-scale raids by both leagues and, eventually, peace between them. It also signaled, quite clearly, the importance of the siege-gun kicker.
Only twice prior to 1961 had a kicker made as many as 20 field goals in one season. But over the last 12 years the leading pro field-goal kicker has always had 20 or more. Last season Chester Marcol, the Polish kicking specialist for the Green Bay Packers, hit 33, only one shy of the league record.
So far this season the trend has continued. Through Sunday 276 field goals were kicked compared with 259 last year. Obviously, there are more talented field-goal kickers around now—they hit on 61% last year; 10 years ago it was only 49%. But they are only symptomatic of what is happening to the game. They are not the cause.
The villain, as much as any other single factor, is the zone defense. The zone was first used extensively in the old AFL during its last days, when the established NFL had a virtual monopoly on top defensive backs. Unable to cover receivers man-to-man with the personnel at their disposal, the AFL coaches developed a defense that enabled overmatched defenders to choke off a long-range passing attack. By the time the leagues merged in 1970 and the former AFL teams had acquired defensive stars of their own, the advantages of the zone were clear to everybody—and good defenders operated it even more efficiently than the mediocre ones.
Cutting off the long pass as a viable weapon forced most clubs back to the short pass and the run. Fewer successful bombs meant fewer quick touchdowns. As attacking teams neared the goal line, defenses could mass, so that finally, almost as often as not within the 35-yard line, coaches began to settle for an almost certain three points rather than gamble on trying to prolong a drive that might or might not produce six.
In the last quarter of any reasonably close game today, the hometown fans are concerned not with whether their team can get a touchdown, but with whether it can move into field-goal range. A prime example came in the Oakland-Denver Monday night TV game last week. The Raiders, in a 20-20 tie, mounted a cautious offense that carried to the Denver 42 and, with 36 seconds left, elderly George Blanda kicked a 49-yard field goal. Denver responded with a rapid but equally cautious short-range offense designed not to win the game but to get its own field-goal kicker in range. The last two plays in this drive were runs intended simply to position the ball directly in front of the goalpost. Jim Turner's toe gave Denver its tie—a satisfying result for the home crowd, certainly. But at four other points earlier in the same game, drives that might have resulted in touchdowns were also settled out of court, as it were, for field goals. As three-pointers go, the final two were fairly exciting. But not one of the six field goals in the game could compare to an old-fashioned, go-for-broke try for a touchdown. Field goals cost too little and pay too much.
The fact that both Oakland and Denver had kickers capable of scoring from near midfield points up another reason why field goals have proliferated. In the old days, when clubs could carry only 33 players, the field-goal kicker kicked as a sideline. His principal job was to play another position. Lou Groza, who led the NFL in field goals for years, was a starting offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Bob Waterfield, who kicked field goals for the Rams when they won the championship in 1951, was their All-Pro quarterback.
Now, with 47-man rosters, teams can afford the luxury of specialists, including players who do nothing but kick. And of these kickers, the only one who puts foot to ball except for field goals, PATs or kickoffs is Don Cockroft of Cleveland, who also punts for the Browns. But once they have kicked off, most specialists are considered liabilities, since few are capable of making an open-field tackle.
Marcol, the Green Bay kicker, played high school and college football after he came to the U.S. from Poland, but even he admits to his deficiencies. "I made a few tackles in college," he says. "If I have to do it, it's something I have to do. But I don't take tackling practice. I've never had to tackle anybody as a pro."
Mirro Roder, a Czech who specializes in long field goals for the Chicago Bears (Mac Percival, a short field-goal specialist, is also on the squad), recently broke a finger on his left hand trying to make a tackle. A cheerful rookie who is also a qualified bricklayer, Roder was asked to compare the two professions: "Laying brick, it relax," he said. "Lot of funny guys lay bricks. Much smile." This was after he had his finger broken.
With smaller squads, no club could afford a Marcol or a Roder or, for that matter, a Garo Yepremian. Yepremian is the balding Miami tie salesman and field-goal kicker who was born in Cyprus, played soccer in England and, at 5'8" and 175 pounds, looks like a refugee from the Pop Warner League when he trots onto the field. But he won the longest game ever played when he beat Kansas City with a 37-yard field goal after 22 minutes and 40 seconds of overtime in an AFC playoff in 1971. He is better known for his pass attempt after a bungled field goal in the Super Bowl last year. The feeble throw was intercepted and returned 49 yards for Washington's only score.
Not all kickers are so helpless. Roy Gerela, the Canadian-born kicker for the Steelers, was a fourth-round draft choice as a back from New Mexico State. Although he is small (5'10", 185 pounds), he has made tackles on kickoffs and on blocked field-goal attempts. "We have 11 football players out there when the kicking team is on the field," says Coach Chuck Noll.
If larger squads and the zone defense created more opportunities for the specialist kickers, a rule change last year also made their job easier. The idea behind moving the hash marks closer to the center of the field was to put more of a burden on the zone defenses. But it gave the kickers a cleaner target. There are no more sharp angles; even from the shorter ranges the kicks are almost straight on.
A number of suggestions have been put forward about how to deal with the field-goal problem. The Chicago Bears experimented with a direct solution in a preseason game against Green Bay. Abe Gibron, the hardbitten Bear coach, assigned a hatchet man to assault Marcol after he had kicked off. The New York Jets later went Gibron two better and assigned three men to knock Marcol down.
Marcol did not complain about the Bear incident, but when the press did Gibron growled, "What is Marcol, anyway, a Polish prince? When you're on the football field, you gotta expect to get hit."
But the offending team's own kicker is vulnerable, too, and foot-for-a-foot retaliation coud lead to an appalling casualty rate in small, foreign field-goal kickers. The homebreds, most of them, are big enough and have enough football savvy to take care of themselves. Tom Dempsey, the 6'1", 255-pound kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles, was born with half a right foot and a stub of a right hand, which did not prevent him from playing defensive end in college. He holds the league record of 63 yards for a field goal, set against Detroit when he was with the New Orleans Saints. That happened when a new coach sent Dempsey in to kick, thinking the Saints were on the Detroit 40-yard line.
Dempsey is not intimidated by any hatchet-man plan. "They blindside me," he said, "and I'll hit them with this stump. I can kill a man with this."
Norm Van Brocklin, the acerb coach of the Atlanta Falcons, suggests a more sophisticated method of dealing with field goals and foreign kickers. "Tighten up the immigration laws," he says, ignoring the fact that the Falcons' placekicker is an Italian-born Hungarian named Nick Mike-Mayer.
More serious proposals would either diminish the value of the field goal or make it more difficult to kick. Points for a field goal might be tied to its length: inside the 20, two points; from the 20 to the 40, three points; and from beyond the 40, four points. That would certainly reward the strong-legged kicker, but it would penalize the better team, which would clearly pay a price for maintaining a drive from, say, the 45 to the 15 before being forced to try a field goal. And one can imagine a quarterback, faced with third and long at the opponent's 39-yard line, deliberately losing two yards so as to put his kicker just outside the 40 for a four-point goal.
Moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone would make field goals 10 yards more difficult, but it still would not negate the advantage a team with a long-range kicker enjoys. There would be cheap 45-yard field goals instead of cheapies from 55 yards out.
The simplest way to cut down on field goals, especially the long shots, would be to force the kicking team to take a risk commensurate with the reward. A missed try inside the 20-yard line would, as now, result in the opposing team's gaining possession on the 20. But on a miss outside the 20 the ball would be returned to the line of scrimmage. This rule would result in more punts, since few coaches would take a chance on giving an opponent the ball around midfield in a close game after a missed field goal. The other team would then be in a position to drive to within short field-goal range.
Some argue that a punt is no more exciting than a field goal, but that need not be true. If, as a supplement to the new field-goal rule, the Canadian football rule outlawing the fair catch were also adopted, the punt would have to be fielded and returned. And punt returns were once among the most exciting plays in the game.
It does not seem likely that any such drastic measures will be taken in the near future. Dempsey analyzed the situation accurately.
"Funny thing," he said. "The owners who don't have a long-ball kicker want the rules' changed against kicking the long ball. And the owners who have long-ball kickers want long kicks to be worth more. I say change the defenses, don't blame the kickers."
He may have three points there.