Sports

Bernstein: The NFL’s War On Kickers

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Bears kicker Robbie Gould. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Bears kicker Robbie Gould. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Dan-Bernstein Dan Bernstein
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since...
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By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist

(CBS) Nice job, guys. Thanks for all the good work. Now please go away.

That’s the underlying message the NFL seems to be sending to its placekickers, a once-marginalized class that has over-evolved into something of an invasive species. Like Asian carp in Illinois rivers, northern snakeheads in the Potomac or the Everglades’ feral cats, kickers have adapted so well to their environment so quickly that they are threatening the fragile football ecosystem.

As Slate’s Mike Pesca describes: “Football is tough, fast, painful and brutal. Field goals are none of these things. Field goal kickers absolutely are performing a physical feat, and they should be respected for their craft and athleticism. But kicking the ball doesn’t really fit in with the essential gestalt of what football has become.”

It began with the introduction of the standardized “K-ball” in 1999 and continues today with NFL proposals to either eliminate the extra point or move it back far enough that teams are likelier to find going for two worth the risk differential.

Legs are so strong and reliable that overtime rules had to change to keep the winner of a coin flip from being less than half a field away from probable victory. Kickoffs alone have become a conflicted affair, with all the excitement of initiation routinely sapped by the inevitable touchback. The league works against itself, wanting to cut down on avoidable collisions but altering rules in ways that could add to them as kicks are replaced by more action from scrimmage.

Colts’ kicker Adam Vinatieri spoke out against the lengthening of the PAT try, telling USA Today, “This just seems like a proposal by a couple of people trying to pound their chest a little, saying, ‘Let’s change it up because kickers are too good.’”

The specialty has developed rapidly from what it once was, earning concern that its quality at the game’s highest level has created unforeseen imbalance. The kicker used to be a lineman who brought an extra, square-toed shoe to the game and put it on as needed to stub the ball through the posts. The soccer-style revolution of the Hungarian Gogolak brothers, Garo Yepremian from Cyprus and Norway’s Jan Stenerud fostered the still-lingering stereotype of the exotic foreigner at the end of the bench who doesn’t know how to wear his helmet properly.

But the best comparison for the modern kicker is today’s engineered professional golfer. Just as technology and coaching from early age have filled out the PGA field with more high-level contenders than any time in its history, so has specialized instruction selected and refined placekickers into machines, similarly replicating powerful, dynamic swings to become shot-makers.

And where golf courses never stop reacting to better players by lengthening holes, adding hazards, growing out rough or speeding up greens, the NFL has done the opposite by improving playing surfaces and increasing the number of games played in pristine conditions indoors, creating virtual driving ranges for these human three-irons who are now reasonably expected to make 90 percent of their attempts.

I fully expect that the accelerating success of kickers from ever-increasing distances will soon meet new attempts at restriction.

So the league wants it both ways. On one hand, the NFL claims to want fewer people running into each other and risking concussions and other injuries, still spooked by both the possibility of further lawsuits and a shrinking pool of future players as parents decide such a vicious physical toll is not for their sons. On the other, the NFL’s PAT proposals and already-enacted overtime changes encourage more smashing and less long-range sharpshooting, inviting us to view them cynically.

Kickers have never been better at what they do, and they may end up being punished for it by a league talking out of both sides of its mouth.

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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