There was a time when NFL kickers were like left offensive tackles. If you had acumen, consistency and never got "the yips," NFL kickers had a job for a decade.
The Vikings were no exception. Picking up Ryan Longwell off the NFL scrap heap when Green Bay saw a younger, cheaper option, he became the latest in a long line of veteran kickers given up for dead by others that helped the Vikings win games – joining all-time leading scorer Fred Cox and a who's-who of all-time veteran kickers, including Jan Stenerud, Gary Anderson, Morten Andersen, Eddie Murray and Fuad Reveiz. They were guys whose careers were thought to be over but kept coming back for another productive season.
It was a difficult fraternity to break into back in the day, but, as football has become a game of specialization, so has the role of kicker. Making 80 percent of field goal attempts used to be the benchmark that needed to be consistently reached to be successful. Only five of the 31 kickers who had enough field goal attempts to qualify among the league leaders didn't hit 80 percent. Blair Walsh was one of eight kickers to make more than 90 percent of their attempts.
Just five years ago, the NFL was dotted with entrenched kickers. In 2008, the scoring leaders included guys like John Carney (New York Giants), David Akers (Philadelphia), Phil Dawson (Cleveland), Matt Bryant (Tampa Bay), Josh Brown (St. Louis), Jason Hanson (Detroit), Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis), Jason Elam (Atlanta), Longwell (Minnesota), Joe Nedney (San Francisco), Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland), Rob Bironas (Tennessee), John Kasay (Carolina), Matt Stover (Baltimore), Nate Kaeding (San Diego), Neil Rackers (Arizona) and Olindo Mare (Seattle).
Of the 32 players that were full-time kickers for NFL teams in 2008 (just five years ago), only seven – Mason Crosby (Green Bay), Steve Gostkowski (New England), Robbie Gould (Chicago), Janikowski (Oakland), Rian Lindell (Buffalo) and Vinatieri (Indianapolis) – remain with the same team they kicked for five years ago. It's hard to deny a five-year attrition rate of 75 percent. The landscape has changed for kickers and it should be noted that Buffalo drafted a kicker, which could spell the end for Lindell, and both Crosby and Hartley are hanging by a thread with their respective teams.
On the other side of that coin, more teams have committed to younger, stronger kickers not only because there are more specialists who have increased the accuracy of field goals, but they have helped to make kickoff return burners an endangered species.
Just as many teams (seven confirmed, eight likely) have invested in a kicker who has played two seasons or fewer. Walsh ran Longwell out of town. Justin Tucker has helped Ravens fans forget Stover. Zuerlein helped the Rams get out from under the huge contract it gave Brown five years earlier. Dan Bailey has stopped the cavalcade of veteran kickers in Dallas. Randy Bullock was one of college football's most decorated kickers in history and, after missing his rookie season with a torn groin muscle, he is expected to lock down the Houston Texans job for the foreseeable future. Two years ago, Alex Henery ran Pro Bowler David Akers out of Philly without as much as a gold watch for a thank you. After a near-perfect 11 games in which the Redskins caught fire, second-year man Kai Forbath seems to be along for the RG3-era ride in Washington. If Buffalo's rookie little big man Dustin Hopkins can unseat Lindell, 25 percent of the league will have young kickers locked and loaded in the last two years as they move forward.
In a quietly unreported turn of the tide among kickers, it would seem the position of power is no longer having a crafty veteran who is automatic from inside 40 yards on field goals and drops most of his kicks on the goal line. Now, kickers basically need to be automatic from inside 52 yards and drop kicks eight yards deep in the end zone.
While offense is getting the notice as the dominant side of the ball with rules changes that opened up the passing game, the importance of when the offense gets into scoring position and fails to get a touchdown has become even more crucial because it happens so many more times a game. Kickers are as big a reason as any why the NFL keeps setting and approaching scoring records. When an offense gets into position on third down, the quarterback has to decide whether to throw into double coverage or check down and there aren't as many gunslingers as there are pragmatists.
Three years ago, we identified a growing trend in the NFL of overrating and over-evaluating veteran quarterbacks. The mindset has been to get a young, talented QB and mold him in your own franchise image. It has become clear over the last three seasons that NFL teams are enamored with finding a young QB to build up for the future.
The new frontier in the NFL is locking down a young kicker and telling the Jurassic types to start to steppin'. It would appear that 25 percent of the NFL has locked down those guys in a two-year span. Coincidence? Look at field goal numbers from 10 years and today and you'll see that kicker has become the submarine of NFL warfare – run silent, run deep, be effective.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.