It was a Tuesday in the middle of the 1977 season, and the Philadelphia Eagles needed a kicker. Player personnel assistant Carl Peterson thought he had found a winner in Ove Johansson, so he fetched coach Dick Vermeil to come watch the Swede try out. Kick after soccer-style kick, the ball boomed off Johansson's right foot, high and deep, 80 yards in the air. "Sign him right now," Vermeil said.
A few days later, on the plane ride to St. Louis for a game against the Cardinals, Johansson walked up to Peterson's seat and told him he didn't see much confidence on the team. Johansson said the Eagles needed some training in the power of positive thinking. Peterson told Johansson to sit down.
That was the first indication Peterson had that signing Johansson, who had kicked for Abilene (Texas) Christian, may have been a mistake. The second indication came during warmups before that Sunday's game, as Peterson watched Johansson kick into the practice net on the sideline. Johansson's first attempt missed the net, hooked terribly and hit a fan in the first row smack in the face. Peterson started to feel woozy.
Then, on the game's opening kickoff, Johansson's boot fluttered only 44 yards. Vermeil shot a dirty look at Peterson. Ten minutes into a scoreless game, Johansson tried his first field goal, from 43 yards, and pulled it so far left that it landed in the corner of the end zone. Now Peterson felt like throwing up.
But wait. Late in the second quarter, after Philly had scored a touchdown, Johansson trotted out for the extra point—and it was blocked! The Eagles lost 21-16, and as Vermeil walked off the field, he went straight for Peterson. "Fire that s.o.b.!" Vermeil said. "I don't even want him on the charter home!"
Pro football—what a science! The NFL's far-reaching scouting network can root out a semipro player in Massachusetts, and the best coaches in the world can turn a Notre Dame quarterback with an ordinary arm into a four-time Super Bowl champion, but nobody can solve the riddle of the placekicker. Kicking remains the most imperfect, maddening and costly variable in the game. Yet with a quarter of the 896 games played in the last four seasons having been decided by three points or fewer, field goals have never been more important.
Last year NFL kickers made good on 73.5% of their field goal tries, the fifth year in a row that kickers converted at least seven of every 10 attempts. That's terrific, when you consider the weather some guys kick in, all the 50-yard-plus attempts and the pressure that goes with the job.
But on any Sunday, particularly late in the game, these guys can be dangerous. On each of two weekends last season, there were four games in which kickers failed to make field goals that would have won a game or sent it into overtime.
On Sept. 15 the New York Jets, the New York Giants, the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers all came up short when their placekickers came up empty. But Nov. 3 was especially horrific: The Cleveland Browns' Matt Stover missed a field goal from 47 yards and had a 34-yarder blocked, both in the final two minutes of a 23-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals; the Green Bay Packers' Chris Jacke blew a 42-yarder in overtime in a 19-16 loss to the Jets; San Francisco's Mike Cofer missed from 33, 32, 32 and 47 yards in a 17-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons; and the Houston Oilers' Ian Howfield pulled a 33-yarder to the left with four seconds to play in Washington, and the Redskins won 16-13 in overtime. Howfield was fired the next day.
So why is it that even though every year a few kickers alter the course of their teams' seasons, clubs still don't place more emphasis on scouting, drafting and coaching kickers? Every team has at least one special teams coach, but only one team, the Dallas Cowboys, has a kicking coach—someone who works exclusively with the kickers and their strange and fragile psyches.
Of course, predicting who's going to be a standout kicker and who's going to choke on a 33-yarder at RFK Stadium with four seconds remaining might be the toughest task in football. The most accurate field goal kicker in league history, Nick Lowery (.793) of the Kansas City Chiefs, had the door slammed in his face by the Jets, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Bucs, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Bengals, Redskins, Redskins again, New Orleans Saints, Chargers, Colts again and Jets again before catching on with K.C. in 1980. "It's impossible to measure what's inside someone," Lowery says, "and that's what keeps sports exciting. If every kicker made every kick at the end of every game, would fourth quarters be exciting anymore? You want to watch robots, go someplace else."
Case in point: Gary Anderson, who is 5'11", 179 pounds, was a soccer player in South Africa who moved to the U.S. as a youth. He has an accurate but not powerful leg. He developed his placekicking skills at Syracuse. He has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 10 years and ranks third alltime in field goal accuracy (.763). John Lee is 5'11", 180 pounds. He was a soccer and baseball player in South Korea who moved to the U.S. as a youngster. He had an accurate but not powerful leg. He sharpened his kicking skills at UCLA, and he was the St. Louis Cardinals' kicker for one season.
"The difference between Gary Anderson and John Lee is almost nothing," says Cleveland special teams player Ron Wolfley, a former Cardinal. "So why is Anderson one of the greatest of all time, and why is Lee a bust? Mental toughness. It's a clichè, but it's the absolute truth. The kicker is all alone—he misses it, he blew it. It might not be true, but that's what everybody thinks."
Steve Little and Lee are prime examples of why teams rarely take kickers high in the draft. George Boone, the former St. Louis personnel director, drafted Little in the first round in 1978 and Lee in the second round in '86. "A lot of people give lip service to the kicking game," says Boone. "We took kickers because we felt they were a crucial part of the game." But the Cardinals didn't know that Little was such a party animal and didn't take into account that Lee's kickoffs were weak and didn't realize that both players performed poorly in critical situations. In three seasons Little and Lee combined to make 21 of 40 field goals.
"You've got to be able to absorb some of the stuff that happens in pro football, the pressure and the criticism from the coaches," says Lee, who now sells real estate in Southern California. "I guess I wasn't mature enough then. It just ate away at me, and I couldn't wait to be cut."
Boone says he still has no regrets about having spent high draft choices on Little and Lee, but he did learn something about kickers. "Football players are drummers," Boone says. "Kickers are violinists."
In 26 games between September 1985 and October 1986, including the preseason, regular season and postseason, the Giants used kickers Ali Haji-Sheikh, Jess Atkinson, Eric Schubert, Haji-Sheikh, Bob Thomas, Haji-Sheikh, Thomas, Joe Cooper and Raul Allegre. Haji-Sheikh was injured three times in one calendar year ('86) in games against the Packers. "If I played Green Bay every week," the Sheikh said at the time, "I'd need to buy an ICU wing in a hospital."
Equally sad was the case of Thomas, who swung his right leg, hit a chunk of upraised turf and sprained his ankle during a practice in his first week with the team. Giant coach Bill Parcells, shaking his head incredulously, said, "Kickers don't get hurt. They're kickers, for crying out loud! How can kickers get hurt? All they do is kick!"
Allegre also bruised easily. He thought the Giants' practice regimen for kickers was excessive, and he regularly complained about aches and pains. Some Giant officials took to calling him Porcelain Groin. Still, the Giants won the Super Bowl after the '86 season. Sometimes the steadiest kickers can come unglued. From 1986 through '89 the Seattle Seahawks' Norm Johnson missed a total of seven field goals from between 30 and 39 yards. But in '90 he missed six from that distance, and Seahawk fans buried him. "It gets to the point, when you miss a couple, where you feel like the salaries of your teammates are on your back and your back's against the wall," says Johnson, who went to two sports psychologists during the '90 season. "You can't think negatively. It'll kill you."
But last season, after having been cut by Seattle and signed by the Atlanta Falcons, he had his best kicking season (83% field goal accuracy) in seven years, including a perfect 13 for 13 inside the 40. What's more, Johnson, who as a member of the Seahawks kicked in the Kingdome, had his career year for a Falcon team that played 15 of its 16 regular-season games outdoors. His theory: When a kicker starts going bad and the negative feedback begins to steamroll, he gets caught in a no-win mind game, and he has to change teams.
Maybe hiring kicking coaches, such as the Cowboys' Steve Hoffman, a former Dickinson (Pa.) College punter, is the wave of the future. "I'm the shoulder they cry on," he says. "They're so alone. My job is to keep them comfortable."
His job is also to find kickers who are game tough, not flaky like Johansson. "When I scout a college kicker," Hoffman says, "I usually say a couple of things to challenge him, and then I look in his eyes and listen to his voice. How does he respond? When you look in his eyes, do you see confidence or paranoia? You have to go with your gut feeling on a guy."
Hoffman had a gut check this summer when he had to replace kicker Ken Willis, who went to the Tampa Bay Bucs under Plan B. Dallas signed two kickers—Brad Daluiso of the Buffalo Bills through Plan B and Lin Elliott, a free agent out of Texas Tech—and had them square off in the preseason. Elliott won the roster spot when he hit both of his field goal tries and put all four of his kickoffs into the end zone in the final preseason game. Even so, he was bothered by a strained groin, and the game doesn't count.
The scariest thing for NFL coaches to realize is this: If Johansson and his miracle leg were around today, he would probably still get a tryout somewhere. It's enough to make Peterson plot some revenge. "When I retire," says Peterson, "I'm going to open a kickers' camp. I'm going to get them all in there, and you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to throw pies in their faces."