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Justin Tucker, John Harbaugh and more on the state of kicking in the NFL

We may be five weeks away from crowning a Super Bowl winner, but we know about the 2021 NFL season: It’s been odd in the kicking business. As usual, about a third of the points scored were scored on foot. Justin Tucker of the Ravens continued his GOAT trajectory, achieving nearly 95% of his kicks, including a record 66 yards. Never have kickers been so precise over longer distances… and yet nearly half of NFL teams have replaced their kicker during the season. The extra points hovered around 90%, strangely, below the equivalent field goal of 33 yards (more details below). And kickers made less than 2% of the overall NFL payroll.

This sunday 60 minutes of CBS, a review of the state of NFL kicks, ups, downs and misses. Some excerpts below, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

It won’t spark much debate in the saloon or living room: Justin Tucker, the Ravens kicker, is the best in the business.

Jon Wertheim: What do you consider to be the most important factor in the success of a kicker?

Justin tucker: I would say there are a couple of things that come to mind. You would have to have a certain level of talent. You need to have the physical ability to explode through the ball and time your body so that you can kick kicks. And then you’ve got to have a level of mental toughness to take what you’re doing on the training ground and apply it on game day. And I would also say that you have to be able to manage your emotions.

JW: You say manage emotions. How are you doing that?

JT: It’s almost difficult to explain. I focus on the action of kicking the ball, not the consequence. The action on the consequence always. What this means for me is to focus on my technique, to see the ball slammed, to see the ball coming out of the snapper’s fingertip, to see the spotted ball, to spot the perfect spot very carefully to the ball with my eyes, then match it up – match the big bone in my right foot to that sweet spot, next.

JW: It’s a lot of precision for something occasional fans can overlook at times.

JT: Yeah, I think it’s possible that the casual fan is overlooking — or maybe even not recognizing everything that goes into making kicks. But for us, it’s our job. It is our livelihood.

JW: [Your record-breaking kick] you knew the score. Did you know the footage was going to be a record?

JT: I knew it would be a record once I got on the pitch and I realized, “Oh, we’re only at the 48-meter line? I’m going to have to put a little extra behind that ball to make sure I can get it there. … We were looking at fourths and 19. And Lamar backs up the pass, finds Sammy Watkins in what I believe to be a split safety gaze, and finds him near the sideline. At the 48-yard line with seven seconds left, the clock was stopped. We’re still running a game, kind of like a foul ball situation, like ‘okay we’ll scoop up a few more yards or else we’ll throw out of bounds and then throw a Hail Mary or kick foot to objective ground. “And for me, it was never a question – it can never be a question for me – of, are we, you know, throwing that or are we going to kick it? Mind, I have to be, like, ready from the moment my feet leave the white of the sideline to the green of the pitch. I have to be ready to smash the ball.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has the chance to coach Justin Tucker. He started his career as a special teams coach and has a special appreciation for little guys with big feet.

JW: How good is Justin Tucker?

John harbaugh: He’s the best ever.

JW: Better than Adam Vinatieri and Morten Andersen?

JH: I’m biased but I think an impartial observer should say that Justin Tucker is the best kicker that has ever been kicked.

JW: Are kicks underrated or at least underestimated in the NFL?

JH: You know, I think most people who understand the game understand how important it is. This is the opportunity to score. And usually it’s the opportunity to score when the game is on. In the National Football League, there is a balance; there is parity. Most teams look a lot alike. A lot of those games are going to come down to one score at the end of the day, and it’s your guy who makes the difference in these games.

JW: Help us understand: The Ravens are one of the few teams that has a dedicated kicking coach. How can that be?

JH: Well, when I was the special teams coordinator in Philadelphia when, and – you know, you were coaching kickoff coverage. You practice the return from the punt. You coach all the details of the 11 players. And you realize how little you know about kicking. You know, it’s like having a golf swing coach. You might understand the game, but you don’t understand the swing. And we had a kicker, David Akers, and I tried to figure it out and do my best. But I realized that I couldn’t do the job very well. And so, we hired Randy Brown — to me, he’s the best that ever did his job. And he’s a great coach of special teams as well. And then he continued here and he’s been doing the job since we got here.

JW: There aren’t 32 Randy Browns, though.

JH: There aren’t 32 Randy Browns. Maybe there should be.

Morten Andersen, now 61, is one of two kickers in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. (Jan Stenerud is the other). He saw the art of kicking evolve.

JW: Today, nearly half of NFL teams have already passed through more than one kicker. Why do you have this turnover?

Morten Andersen: Because there is a misconception that if it is a little broken, we are not willing to fix it. We are not ready to invest time, especially a young person who arrives. We’ll just replace him with another broken guy. It’s not like an offensive lineman when you have backups. Here we are, you know? We are the guy. We are the person who will take care of this work in this team. There are therefore 32 jobs in the world. It is therefore an exclusive place and very difficult to access.

JW: What was the biggest difference in this improvement in accuracy and distance that, statistically anyway, we’ve seen?

MY: Well you don’t have an offensive lineman who just played 10 games with sweaty hands, gloves, and now he has to put on a different hat and become a long snapper.

JW: Is that what you had?

MY: This is what we had. Now you have a designated long snapper. His uniform is clean. He’s on the sidelines over there. During training he is there with the kicker. He’s there with the incumbent, who’s usually a kicker now, who has a lot of time to spend with the kicker.

You know I spoke with my Pro Football of Fame brother Jan Stenerud and he said he was lucky in the ’70s if he got, like, three live kicks with his holder all week. Now, they can hang around for hours every day and rectify and fix it.

JW: Wait, he’s a Hall of Fame kicker, and he says before Sunday’s game he would have had three live kicks all week?

MY: “Hey, Lenny Dawson, please can we have Lenny?” Can we… do you have a second? ” You know? So that was a whole different thing… I mean, they were all starting offensive linemen, sweat running down their faces on their hands, blood and dirt – and now I’m coming, and I would like a nice vertical ball of this type. And this is the least of his worries.

Connor Barth kicked four teams in his 10-year NFL career. Now 35, he is back in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, where he works for Blue Shark Vodka. But, in part because of attrition from the profession, he is considering a comeback.

JW: What’s wrong with the extra points? Kickers do better on 33-yard baskets than on 33-yard extra runs. Explain this.

Connor barth: I think it’s a mental thing. You’re walking over there, the 33-yard line now, and you’re like, “Dude, it’s only for a point. ” You know? And sometimes, if it’s a really quick change of possession or an interception that’s pushed back for a touchdown, you don’t have that chance to jump in the net and get a few. It’s not a long field goal, but it’s still one that you’d like, like, to have a few – a few practice kicks in the net before you go. So like, I think you’re just seeing that, like, man, it’s just a point. It’s just weird, it just plays with your head a little bit.

JW: What do you see when you watch Justin Tucker kick? What makes it so good?

CB: He’s almost like Tiger Woods. His contact with the bullet is just … I can’t explain it. It’s almost perfect every time. He has a gift. The speed of his legs and the way he contacts the ball … And his contact with the ball, the way he kicks the ball with his foot is just right – it’s so perfect every time. And obviously, he’s perfected his art, his leg swing and his mechanics. I think he’s going there and he knows that, “Hey, I’m gonna do this every time.” And I think that’s the most important thing for a kicker. You have to know, whatever the conditions, you’re going to go there and cross it every time.

JW: you think we [will ever see] a 70 meters?

CB: Oh, I think, if the conditions are right, absolutely. I think [Matt] Prater, [Brandon] McManus, Justin, I think those three guys would be—

JW: Snapping on the other side of the midfield?

CB: Yeah. I think it could happen. I would love to see it.

JW: You are excited now.

CB: Yeah, I just think records are always made to be broken. To the right?

JW: We are still hung up on this turnover. Almost half of the NFL teams this year have hiked multiple kickers. Are they just impatient?

CB: Yeah, there is a lot of impatience. I think it comes down to the expectations you have now – you’re trying to find this guy who’s as good as those elite guys who hit 95%. And they think it’s over there. And I’m sure it is. [But] I think there’s a point where it’s like, “Dude, let someone settle in and fix things.” You know what? They do this with all other positions. Let me tell you right now. I mean, there are a lot of guys that have had a lot of chances in other positions who are still trying to figure it out. And to kickers, for whatever reason, they’re just like, “Hey, he missed his kick. He got out of here. Let’s go find someone else. And this guy won’t do any better. I think there is a tight leash and the cord cuts very quickly for some reason.

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