Columnists, Sports

Indirect Kick: Football kickers are people too

Stephen Gostkowski missed a crucial extra point attempt in the AFC Championship game. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Stephen Gostkowski missed a crucial extra point attempt in the AFC Championship game. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

While watching the AFC Championship Game last weekend, I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. Things were looking up after Steven Jackson scored, but then the unthinkable happened. Stephen “Mr. Automatic” Gostkowski shanked an extra point — one that ultimately ended up costing the Patriots the game.

Gostkowski bore the blame and was heckled by Pats fans. Fellow kickers — such as the equally unfortunate Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings — supported Gostkowski immediately.

The reality of the whole situation is that 33-yard extra point attempts are stupid, but the ordeal stresses the importance of having a franchise kicker on the roster.

Earlier this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered from kicker troubles. Josh Scobee missed an extra point and six out of 10 field goal attempts before the Steelers cut him. With starting kicker Shaun Suisham out for the season, the Steelers went with the first option available, but not necessarily the best.

The kicker has always been a position that gets overlooked not just in the NFL, but in every level of football. Some high school teams rotate multiple players who happen to know how to kick or just attempt a two-point conversion.

In college, however, kickers are a huge factor to a team’s success.

A local example is Boston College. The Eagles’ football program had a chance to knock off Pennsylvania State University in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2014, but their kicker missed an extra point. This past season, BC went 3-9 but could have possibly gone 6-6 if they had a proven kicker. Instead, they basically had a rotating cast which couldn’t find the uprights if they were standing next to them.

On the flip side, Florida State has rattled off some impressive seasons over the past few years, thanks to stars like Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook. But one player who doesn’t get any media attention is Roberto Aguayo. He is one of the most accurate college kickers ever, nailing 96.7 percent of his kicks. And this season, he became the first kicker since Sebastian Janikowski to declare early for the NFL Draft.

For some NFL teams, a kicker is the difference that can make or break a season.

Had Suisham been healthy or had the Steelers signed another kicker besides Scobee, they would have finished the season with one more win and possibly be playing in next weekend’s Super Bowl in San Francisco.

I understand that’s a bit extreme, but it certainly wouldn’t have been impossible.

In the past, kickers have proven to be an important role. Just ask Adam Vinatieri.

In both the 2002 and 2004 Super Bowls, the sure-footed Vinatieri hit a field goal in the waning seconds to give the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady was named the Most Valuable Player in each game, but the honor easily could’ve gone to Vinatieri.

In the 2001 AFC Divisional Round, Vinatieri was also the hero. Not once, but twice, the legendary kicker stepped up in the driving snow to kick a crucial field goal. The first one from 45 yards tied the game in the final seconds and the second from 23 yards won the game.

But aside from field goal kicking, kickers are also valued for their ability on kickoffs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LpySPWGqHA

For someone like Gostkowksi, many of the kickoffs he takes are either deep in the end zone or over the area altogether, resulting in a touchback. His average kick distance for the 2015 regular season was 63.1 yards. Sixty-nine of his 99 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and only 28 were returned. Those returns only amounted to just over 500 yards by other teams.

This statistic hurt teams like the New York Giants this season. Kicker Josh Brown had 54 of his 93 kickoffs returned, with one resulting in a touchdown. As for the others? Many of them resulted in possession around the 30-yard line or even the midfield stripe.

With kickoffs being important for field position, this is another skill teams must look for when searching for kickers.

The kicking position is really being taken for granted lately. Teams should really start to consider drafting or signing franchise kickers, especially with rule changes in the NFL directly concerning kicking. After all, it is called “football,” and the first thing that happens in any game is a kickoff.

Am I mad at Stephen Gostkowski? Absolutely not. In fact, if I had to choose any kicker to use in crunch time, it would be him. You can’t fire a kicker for missing one extra point per season. Gostkowski is consistent, and that’s what you need in a kicker in the modern day NFL.

In the National Football League, a kicker can clearly be the difference in a season. Teams must start to consider kickers important, or their records will go downhill fast.

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