NFL Kickers Fascinate, Infuriate and Have Some Wondering If They're Necessary

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 18, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 22: Kicker Justin Tucker #9 of the Baltimore Ravens kicks the game winning field goal to defeat the St. Louis Rams 19-16 at M&T Bank Stadium on November 22, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

This is the world of a kicker.

It's full of pressure and a lack of appreciation for the position. It's also full of pranks. Few players have more opportunities—more timeto create trouble than kickers. So it wasn't a surprise when former kicker Lawrence Tynes was approached by his then-Giants teammates to target quarterbacks Eli Manning, Tim Hasselbeck and Anthony Wright for some good-natured mischief.

Tynes agreed and went about letting the air out of the driver's side tires of each of their cars. He then left a bicycle pump taped to the doors of each of their cars so they could pump the tires back up.

Tynes thought no one had discovered he was the deflator. But the quarterbacks found out and retaliated. When Tynes came to his car on the last day of camp in Albany, New York, his entire car was caked, bumper-to-bumper, with Vaseline.

"Took me about six hours to even make it safe to drive," said Tynes, who can now laugh about the scene.

Part court jester, part curiosity and part object of derision, an NFL kicker holds a distinct place in football hierarchy. While they fascinate those who play alongside them, others around the game continually assess their true value.

This is the world of a kicker.

Not long ago, offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz was standing on the sideline during a game. The temperature on the field was over 100 degrees. Suddenly, Schwartz noticed something odd.

It was his kicker. Despite the sweltering temperatures, this kicker was on the sideline wearing a long, heavy winter coat.

"That's odd," Schwartz thought.

Then the kicker's hand moved from underneath the coat, and in it was a Gatorade cup full of urine.

"Now I get it," Schwartz thought.

"I'm indifferent about [kickers]," said Schwartz, an eight-year veteran who last played for the Giants in 2015. "They have a job to do just like the rest of us. If they don't make the kicks, they get questioned. If I don't block for the quarterback well enough, my teammates question me."

But kickers get more than questions; they generate a special kind of resentment.

Lawrence Tynes connected on 83.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in six seasons with the Giants, including a pair of Super Bowl wins.
Lawrence Tynes connected on 83.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in six seasons with the Giants, including a pair of Super Bowl wins.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Hall of Famer Michael Strahan remembers how one season when he was playing with the Giants, one of the team's kickers was taking a full load of law school classes. While the other players were out practicing, the kicker would be in the locker room, studying.

Then, late in practice, the kicker would come out, practice for 25 minutes and then go back into the locker room.

"That's why most of us hate kickers," said Strahan, mostly kidding.

Jokes aside, the men who occupy this oddest of positions take their jobs as seriously as any linebacker. They are professionals. Hard workers.

They win games. They win Super Bowls. They win the respect of teammates. One is even in the Hall of Fame. They have been a key part of the game since there was a game.

"[When] guys in the locker room…would look over and say, 'Man, you got the beautiful schedule, just chilling all day long,' I used to say, 'Yeah, everyone wants to be a kicker—except on Sunday,'" Tynes said. "You ask the other 52 guys in the locker room, and everyone will agree with that."

Former kicker Jay Feely echoed the sentiments of kickers and other players interviewed that inside the locker room, he and his kicking brethren are well respected.

In 2005, Feely put this notion to the test when, as a member of the Giants, he missed three kicks, two in overtime, as New York lost to Seattle. Feely was lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

Despite those hard times, he was struck by the fact that his teammates all supported him.

To Feely, kickers are shown respect in locker rooms, just not outside of them.

"The reality of kickers is much different than the public perception," he said. "The public (and older former players in the media) view kickers with disdain, as not truly NFL players. Inside the locker room, the reality is much different. Why are specialists voted captains? Why are specialists voted more than any other position to represent their teammates as player representatives in the [union]?

"The answer to both is because they are respected by their teammates. When I was first chosen as a captain by my teammates, it was the greatest accomplishment of my career. It was my teammates' recognition for the hard work and dedication that I put into my job on the field and as a teammate.

"The lack of respect from the general public is unique in professional sports. … The public demands perfection from kickers and yet gives no respect for the job they do. No other position in sports has more inherent pressure associated with the job and yet gets so little credit when you are successful."

Once, when the Giants were playing in Baltimore, a group of fans started yelling at Tynes and all of the special teams players.

"You're not a real football player," yelled one fan.

Jay Feely believes the fact that many kickers are often voted as their team's union representative indicates that for as much ribbing as kickers take, they are well respected in NFL locker rooms.
Jay Feely believes the fact that many kickers are often voted as their team's union representative indicates that for as much ribbing as kickers take, they are well respected in NFL locker rooms.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"Oh yeah," responded one of Tynes' teammates, "you should see my bank account."

"Best comeback ever," Tynes laughed now.

But sometimes even fellow players have fun at the expense of kickers. This Sunday's game between the Ravens and Cowboys features the two most accurate kickers in history, Justin Tucker from Baltimore and Dan Bailey from Dallas. When Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith was asked if he would watch the two kickers warm up in pregame, his response was humorous, but also telling about how some players feel about kickers.

"I would rather go to a circus, a carnival, a fair or even a medieval festival and watch cotton candy be made before I watch Justin Tucker and the other guy practice kicking in pregame to see the evolution of kicking," Smith said. "Sorry."

Kickers are targets not only of fans and of teammates, but also increasingly of those who oversee the game. Extra points were adjusted to increase the level of difficulty, kickoffs are becoming less relevant and a rash of missed field goals has caused the discussion about kickers to become so acidic several current players and team executives suggested the position could be eradicated entirely.

"In five years," predicted one general manager, "there won't be kickers in the NFL."

Several team executives agree, arguing that it's only a matter of time before the position is eliminated. This seems extreme, and these sources say the NFL would never publicly admit the possibility of this.

But several long-time executives stated they strongly believe kickers will go the way of the eight-track tape. They add that several team owners within the past two years have discussed this very possibility.

The reason? The league's emphasis on safety.

Rule changes to the kicking game have been substantial. In addition to moving the extra point back, the kickoff was moved to the 35-yard line to promote more touchbacks. Yet the move saw some teams purposely kick the ball short to force returns. 

Some team officials believe the NFL's competition committee (buoyed by Roger Goodell) will next eliminate kickoffs altogether. Then, kickers. Goodell has publicly discussed the former; he said in September:

We've made some very effective changes on the kickoff that have had a very significant impact reducing injuries. It is still a play where we see a higher propensity for head injury. So we want to try to address that. We think there's still further changes that we can make. We won't take anything off the table, including the elimination. But we still think there are some changes that we can make that we'll continue to see progress in that area.

Some players believe the end times are near for kickers in the NFL.

Jeff Reed, who kicked for the Steelers from 2002-10, said he believes commissioner Roger Goodell would like to eventually eliminate the kicker position in the NFL.
Jeff Reed, who kicked for the Steelers from 2002-10, said he believes commissioner Roger Goodell would like to eventually eliminate the kicker position in the NFL.Karl Walter/Getty Images

"I can say this right now because I am not playing anymore, but I think Roger Goodell is trying to get rid of kickers," former Steelers kicker Jeff Reed said in May 2015 to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review.

Yet Feely, a former high-ranking member of the union, said Goodell told him privately he has no intention of eliminating the position.

The kickers-are-people-too crowd point to the excitement they provide to the game and say getting rid of them, or not respecting them, is wrongheaded thinking. Said Tynes:

The NFL is about scoring. Take away whatever the average points scored by a kicker is each year, and you are losing a 110-150 points of offense per year if you eliminate the kicker. Not what they want.

Good teams know what a good kicker means to football. When we think of "great NFL games" we think of tight games or OT games that ended with a made field goal, missed field goal, blocked field goal, botched field goal hold, etc. … Where would we be without the kicker giving the fans all these emotions, which is what makes the game great. We can make people jump for joy and we can make them want to kill us. Fans either love you or they hate you depending on your last kick.

Without [Adam] Vinatieri, the Patriots have two less Super Bowls. Without Scott Norwood the Giants have one less Super Bowl. I don't bring that up to be a d--k but to show you what a kicker means not only to a NFL franchise but to NFL history. 

Necessary they may be, but kickers who cost their teams a game, a playoff duel, a Super Bowl become an indelible symbol of failure, one that often requires a change of personnel for a team to regain confidence, no matter how much or little the kicker in question has to do with the team's situation in a crucial game.

That seems to be the line of demarcation for whether or not there should be kickers in the NFL. If you have a good one, you love kickers. If you have one that stinks, or the position is in constant flux, you hate them.

Kickers, and people around them, have their stories. Funny stories, great stories, sad ones.

This is the world of a kicker.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.