Out On An Island: The Loneliest Job In The NFL

Leonard SuttonContributor IJanuary 20, 2010

Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721) was a Scottish sailor who spent four years as a castaway on a deserted island off the western coast of South America.  After being rescued in 1709, he returned to Scotland where he became a folk hero and inspired Daniel Defoe to write his first novel, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, now merely known as Robinson Crusoe .  


Selkirk asked to be left on the island when he had a run-in with the ship’s captain, a man named Dampier.  


Selkirk’s choice may not have been the choice you or I would have made in the same instance, but I suppose it’s all in the way one looks at things.  I mean, one man’s solitude is another man’s lonely hell, right?


This brings me to my point—there are lots of clichéd sayings associated with sports.  There’s the “hot corner” in baseball, meaning the area around third base.  The one which springs to mind lately, given that we’re in the latter stages of another NFL season, is the “man on an island” tag. 


Most often used to refer to the solitary assignment of a “shut-down” corner back on the other team’s most dangerous wide out, this season, and postseason too, it seems more appropriate to apply it to another player, whose very responsibility could be considered lonely. 


I refer to the often labeled as quirky or just plain odd, placekicker.  I mean is it just me, or have an unusual number of kickers missed kicks this year?


So I did some research (which makes my temples hurt) with some information gleaned from the good folks over at NFL.com. 


As I alluded to earlier, it seemed to me that an unusual amount of kicks were missed by NFL kickers this season, but what I discovered leads me to think otherwise.


It should be noted that my laborious and extremely unscientific study took into consideration only the last five regular seasons.  No postseason stats were looked at. 


This regular season, the top five placekickers in the NFL, in terms of efficiency, were Nate Kaeding of the Chargers (32 of 35 FGs, 91 percent), David Akers of the Eagles (32 of 37 FGs, 86 percent), Matt Prater of the Broncos (30 of 35 FGs, also 86 percent), Rian Lindell of the Bills (28 of 33 FGs, 85 percent), and Jay Feely of the Jets (30 of 36 FGs, 83 percent). 


This means that the top five kickers in the league had an average efficiency rating of 86.2 percent.  Did I mention that my temples were hurting?


I was sure that this was an unusually low rate of success. However, when compared to the previous four seasons, it doesn’t seem all that low. 


The mean averages (redundant?) bear out like this:  In 2008 the five most accurate kickers averaged 86.8 percent field goals made.  In 2007 it was 86.0 percent, in 2006 it was 84.4 percent, and in 2005 the top five most accurate kickers were good only 87.4 percent of the time.   


I know, I was surprised too.


So, how important are field goals?  Consider Kaeding and the Bolts.  If he had made the three field goals he missed against the Jets, the Chargers would have beaten New York 25-17, and there would be a lot less buzz about a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach playing for the AFC Championship this weekend.


Gone are the days—they seem practically Jurassic when you think about it—when place kicking was not a specialized endeavor.  I mean, it’s been since George Blanda played for Oakland, if memory serves me correctly, that someone actually played another position and handled the kicking chores too.


The loneliness stems from the minutes spent alone on the sidelines waiting to be called into the game, and when that time comes, points are needed.  Points that can determine, at least in Kaeding’s case, whether or not your team plays the next weekend.


A baseball player who bats .350 or better is considered successful, and that is only a 35 percent efficiency rating.  So I guess it boils down to this:  When it comes to kicking field goals, 80-85 percent is pretty good.  


Or at least it seems that way looking back over five seasons of NFL play.  Whether you’re Gilligan, Alexander Selkirk, or even Nate Kaeding, an island may be a lovely place to visit, but you don’t want to be there any longer than you have to.