America at Large: The high-wire life of the NFL kicker
Blair Walsh the latest to discover you can be one poor attempt away from the sack
Minnesota Vikings’ Blair Walsh misses a crucial 27-yard field goal in last January’s 10-9 play-off defeat to the Seattle Seahawks. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Midway through Blair Walsh’s fifth season as the Minnesota Vikings’ kicker, he turned up for work last month and found six unemployed rivals trying out for his job.
Having missed a 27-yard field goal in last January’s play-offs, fluffing three point after touchdown attempts in the first eight games had put him in a precarious position.
After the auditions ended, however, he received a last-minute reprieve.
But the following Sunday he missed another straightforward kick from 33 yards and that was enough. His four million dollar a year contract terminated with immediate effect. Game over.
In the NFL kickers have always been a curiously disposable commodity, potentially just one bad day away from being shown the door.
These times, however, the pressure on them has been intensified by a rule change. In 2015, the authorities stretched the point after touchdown kick from 20 to 33 yards.
By doing so, they turned a routine tap over from in front of the posts, with a more than 99 per cent success rate, into a more challenging affair.
Two Sundays back, 12 different kickers failed to convert in that situation, four more than missed similar efforts in the entire 2014 campaign.
At least partly designed to encourage coaches to try for the far more exciting two-point conversion after a touchdown, the new regulation succeeded on that score.
However, it has also had unforeseen consequences. Some believe the increased degree of difficulty has encouraged the defending team to make more of an effort to block the kick. In the past, it was regarded as so automatic some players treated the point after kick as a play they could use to get their breath back. Not anymore.
“There’s only one reason they moved it back,” said Mike Nugent, kicker with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“They want us to miss more. Whoever came up with the rule got what they wanted. I don’t like the rule because – I could be wrong – I don’t know of any rules that have been changed to make guys fail more.”
The paranoia may be justified.
The league long ago mandated that every kick requires a K ball, fresh out of the box, brand-new and stiff to the touch. It has also recently flirted with the idea of shrinking the width of the goalposts from 18 to 14 feet. Anything to make the task harder.
Of course, for Irish fans looking in from the outside, the kicker’s job, even allowing for the peculiar circumstances of the role, seems deceptively easy. He spends most of the match practicing on the sidelines before running on to slot the ball over the bar at key points. As if it was that simple.
“The big difference is that you can only take two steps in your run-up and you have to hit the ball with a high trajectory because the opposition are lined up seven yards away,” said the late Tom Furlong, a former Offaly footballer who popped up on the New York Giants’ radar back in the 1960s.
“If they penetrate just three feet, they are then 18 feet away and six feet or more in height so really, you have to have it eight feet in the air by the time it travels six yards. Height and distance are the thing in American football and I was lucky in that I always kicked frees like that anyway, I used to use the arch of my foot.”
Acting on a tip-off from a barman in Jim Downey’s on Eight Avenue, the Giants gave Furlong a try-out at Yankee Stadium and immediately signed him to their taxi squad (reserves), and only a career-ending injury cost him his shot at starting with the Atlanta Falcons the following season.
As the peculiar nature of his story indicates, NFL teams are inclined to try something unorthodox when it comes to unearthing kicking talent.
The only full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame is Jan Stenerud, who originally came to this country from Norway on a ski-jumping scholarship. A number of Australians have punted in the league over the past few years, and two of the most legendary kickers, Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson, hailed from Denmark and South Africa respectively.
Against that background it’s hardly surprising then that in 1973, Mick O’Connell was visiting California when he was invited to try out for the Los Angeles Rams.
Hugely impressed, they had a contract ready until they discovered the Kerryman was 36 years old.
In the decades since there have been newspaper flyers about the NFL prospects of Maurice Fitzgerald (New England Patriots) and Ronan O’Gara (Miami Dolphins). The latter two were prompted at least in part by the commonly held view in Ireland that a place-ball kicker of the highest quality could easily make the transition.
Should any of the current generation in rugby or Gaelic football fancy their chances, the opportunity is probably still there because the NFL runs on the premise there’s always a better kicker out there somewhere.
Forbath had a point after attempt blocked on his debut and it turns out none of the money is guaranteed so effectively he’s a couple of more misses away from the sack. The curse of every kicker.