Kicking out Kicking

BY PETER DAHL

There is something captivating about the clutch field goal. Even if kickers are the oft-maligned average Joe on a sideline of titans, American football fans are brought to the edge of their seats, onto their feet and into all the other clichés when the severely out-of-place guy boots the ball through the uprights for three points and the win.

But it is becoming more and more obvious that losing these thrilling moments is worth the world of good that will come with the eradication of kicking. It’s acceptable collateral damage in the necessary phasing-out of an outdated aspect of the game.

Maybe the Colts fan in me is still bitter about Mike Vanderjagt shanking a game-tying field goal after Indianapolis received the most improbable lease on life in NFL history. But, even setting aside the failure of the “idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off” (what a great expression), I believe kickers have got to go (especially kickers with a career accuracy of 88 percent who miss a 46-yard kick in a dome).

The wretched kicking performances of the first part of this NFL season have shown the worst part about kicking: the outcome of a football game is heavily influenced by non-football plays. While teams have always been at the mercy of the inexplicable misses of their kicking professionals, kicking’s influence has expanded with the introduction of the 33-yard extra point attempts. Teams are having to decide what to do on the tail end of their hard-earned touchdown based on how much confidence they have in their kicker to make a kick that has been botched a surprising amount of times this year. This hasn’t created excitement so much as it has allowed for more random factors to influence the score.

Packer fans reading this should know this as well as anyone: how irritating was it in 2012 when Mason Crosby’s inexplicably erratic kicking undermined the efforts of the rest of the team to get into field goal range? I can’t really appeal to Bears fans here, since Robbie Gould is a god. We’ll talk if I ever write about taking quarterbacks out of the game.

All you have to do is watch a kicker attempt a tackle, and it becomes clear that they are the least qualified of all football players. Even punters sometimes come up with a big tackle or make a big play on a fake punt, and we all know Antonio Brown’s Spartan-kick on Spencer Lanning would have taken down anyone. Kickers are the most un-football-player of football players, and it is a serious letdown whenever their failures have such a bearing on the result of a game.

Think about how much more will be left to the real football players when teams attempt that many more fourth-down conversions with the option to kick a field goal no longer available. The game may be decided by how well teams execute plays where they need three or four yards, rather than whether or not their kicker can make a few 45-yarders.

I believe the removal of kicking extends to kick-offs as well. The league has tried to minimize the number of returns because of the disproportionate number of injuries that occur on these plays, but the result has been a lose-lose situation; the kick-off either results in a boring touchback, or the returner irrationally tries a return and is quickly tackled. If the NFL isn’t fully behind keeping the excitement of kick returns in the game, then it should just get rid of this facet altogether. Teams should start with the ball at the 20 after their opponent scores. I will not miss kick-offs, considering the number of injuries, the mundanity of the majority of them and the additional commercial breaks.

Of course removing kicking from the game would require some rule changes, for which I have a few ideas. First, make touchdowns worth seven points. The team can cash out there, or, if they choose, they may attempt a play from the two-yard line. If they succeed, the touchdown is worth eight. If they fail, they lose the automatic seven and receive only six instead.

With field goals no longer an option, punting rules would have to be changed, since a team with a fourth and long in opposing territory might try a punt, knowing their punter is skilled enough to regularly kick the ball out of bounds inside the five. To prevent this from happening so often, make it a penalty to punt the ball out of bounds (like it is now on kick-offs) if the punt occurs on the opponent’s side of the field. On these short punts, punters will have to show the skill necessary to float the ball just short of the goal line if they want to pin the other team in a dangerous spot on the field.

I can already see a strategy where a team trots out their offense but with a punter instead of another receiver, waiting to see if they get a good look before quickly shifting into punting formation. There’s opportunity there for some creativity.

As exciting as clutch kicks can be, kicking overall is a detriment to the game. Removing it altogether would create big changes, but I think if it were to be done we would look back and wonder why it was ever in the game in the first place.

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