This is an article from the Nov. 7, 2011 issue
The Economics of No. 1 vs. No. 2
UFC is Going Prime Time
Tseng Is Winning
Keeping It in the Family
If Handshakegate weren't enough to make you think testosterone levels are rising among NFL coaches, the increase in field goal attempts from 50 yards and beyond should do it.
Coaches traditionally shy away from long-distance attempts, because opponents get the ball at the spot of the miss and often need only a couple of first downs to move into scoring position. But this year coaches are being more aggressive than ever. Through Sunday's games, kickers were on pace to finish with 138 attempts from 50 yards or more, 18 above the league record set in 1993.
"I don't know what the reason is," says Mike Holmgren, now in his second year as president of the Browns. "It's not like they've done anything different to the balls. Maybe kickers are getting more tries because there are so many [crappy] offenses that can't finish drives."
A handful of coaches and kickers believe attempts are up because the weather generally has been mild to good for the past two months. Wind and cold are like Kryptonite to kickers' superlegs: The ball doesn't travel as far through frigid air, and on longer attempts there is more time for a gust to push the attempt off track.
Predictably, kickers tend to believe that nurture, not nature, is behind the increase. "Guys are getting bigger and stronger, but it's also like the evolution of kickers is happening really fast," says Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee. "Guys are specializing at an earlier age. Now you've got all these kicking camps for kids, and there are kicking gurus."
And teams aren't just trying more long field goals—they're making them. Entering the weekend, kickers were making 72.6% of their 50-yarders, an alltime high that translates into 100 conversions, 34 more than the current record. While the numbers fluctuate from year to year, the trend is undeniable. Consider: Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker in the Hall of Fame, made more than two 50-yarders in only one of his 19 pro seasons, and his career conversion rate from 50 and beyond was just 26.6%. Through the first eight weeks of this season, two kickers—Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski and Scobee—have made more than two in one game. And neither of them missed an attempt; they both went 3 for 3.
Janikowski and Scobee lead the league with five 50-yarders. (The record for a season is eight, set by Morten Andersen of the Falcons in 1995 and tied by Detroit's Jason Hanson in 2008.) Just behind them are Cleveland's Phil Dawson and Detroit's Hanson, who have made four each, and San Francisco's David Akers, who has kicked three.
Still, none of this would be possible without a green light from the sideline. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio says he goes through a mental checklist before deciding to go for a long kick, a case in point being the Oct. 24 game against the Ravens in which he sent out Scobee for consecutive makes of 54, 54, 22 and 51 yards, the last of which clenched a 12--7 win.
"Against a very good defense like that, you'd like to be able to come away with some points when you reach the 40," Del Rio says. "The last one was the hardest because you're sitting there with a two-point lead and just under two minutes to play. If you don't make it, they end up getting the ball needing only about 20, 25 yards to get the game-winner up. So that one took a little more fortitude." (Indeed, there have been 14 missed 50-yarders this year that didn't come at the end of a half; the team taking over possession scored on the ensuing drive after eight of them.)
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh also goes through a checklist. But he says his decision ultimately comes down to conviction, even if some might mistake it for brashness. "If you've got a guy who you believe can make it," he says, "you go for it. Why wouldn't you?"
UP, UP AND AWAY
Once a rarity, the long field goal has become a real weapon. Kickers are on pace to make more 50-yarders this year than were even attempted 10 years ago
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
1971 12 of 51 23.5%
1981 21 of 67 31.3%
1991 42 of 94 44.7%
2001 38 of 73 52.1%
2011* 100 of 138 72.5%