That NFL kickers are much better than they used to be is not a new development. The leaguewide percentage of made field goals rose steadily in the 2000s and again in the mid-2010s, to the point where kickers can now be expected to make around 84 or 85 percent of their field goals every season. (In 2019, an exceptionally weird year, they made 81.6 percent.) Kickers aren’t just making more of their field goals, but they’re doing it from farther out. In the early 2000s, the average attempt was from about 36 yards out. Now, it’s from 39. The NFL has tried to rein in kickers a bit, but only with mild success — and only on extra points.
What is new is that kickers in the 2021 playoffs are pushing the position to new heights. Kickers have had postseasons with higher percentages of made field goals, but as a combination of volume, pressure and difficulty, they’ve never had as much on their plate as they’ve had this winter. They have delivered to an unprecedented extent — even to the point of the once-thought-impossible feat of taking the Cincinnati Bengals back to a Super Bowl.
So far in the playoffs, NFL kickers are 41-of-46 on field goals. Their 89.1 percent make rate is the fifth-highest in a postseason this century, most notably behind 2016’s 97.6 (40-of-41) mark. Kickers are 7-for-9 on field goals from at least 50 yards, and the average attempt has come from 39.9 yards out — compared with 38 yards in 2016’s nearly perfect postseason for kickers. The 2021 playoffs’ average kick distance narrowly trails 2017’s 40.1 yards for the longest of the century. The seven made kicks from 50-plus yards put them two made kicks behind the record nine (on 11 attempts) that kickers set in last year’s playoffs. (The leaguewide make percentage from at least 50 yards in regular-season games since 2000 is 59.5.)
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That looks like the continuation of a trend, rather than a true leveling-up of kicking as an art form. But kickers’ performances in high-leverage moments this postseason have set them apart even from their mega-accurate peers of recent memory. Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson is responsible for three of this postseason’s seven successful field goals from 50-plus yards. He hit from 54 and 52 in a divisional-round win at the Tennessee Titans, the latter coming as time expired to send Cincinnati to the AFC championship. Then he hit another 52-yarder in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs before kicking the game-winner in overtime from a comparatively paltry 31 yards.
McPherson is both a microcosm of — and a driving force behind — NFL kickers’ special showing in these playoffs. Kickers have posted slightly better make percentages in past postseasons, but there’s never been a playoffs in which they’ve so robotically drilled field goals in the biggest moments of the year. Before this year, kickers hadn’t attempted more than 15 fourth-quarter or overtime field goals in a postseason since at least 2000. This year, they’re 18-of-19 in those time periods, including 4-of-4 from 50-plus yards. And on PATs, kickers have missed three out of 60 in the playoffs, but they’re 13-for-13 after the third quarter.
In the last two minutes of the fourth quarter alone, kickers are 6-for-6 on field goals. Two of those were 30-yard chip shots by the Los Angeles Rams’ Matt Gay, but the other four were all from 44 to 52 yards in massive pressure cookers. The Chiefs’ Harrison Butker forced overtime with buzzer-beaters in both the divisional and championship rounds, the San Francisco 49ers’ Robbie Gould flushed a 45-yarder in the Lambeau Field snow in the divisional round, and McPherson got rid of the AFC’s top seed with a 52-yarder in the divisional round. And even Gay’s shorter field goals carried plenty of pressure; L.A. won both of those games by 3 points, and his winning kick against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers not only delivered a walkoff for his team but also ended the career of the greatest quarterback in the history of the sport.
There’s been no recent postseason in which NFL teams have asked so much of kickers in such fraught situations. They’ve responded almost perfectly, and literally perfectly at the end of games. (In addition to 6-for-6 in the last two minutes of regulation, McPherson converted on the only overtime field goal attempt of the playoffs to date.)
What’s led to this wild success in crucial spots? It’s best not to draw immediate conclusions from these playoffs alone, other than that McPherson, a 2021 fifth-round pick out of Florida who was not alive when the Bengals last won a playoff game before this year, is an iceman. But NFL kickers have been improving for decades, and at least one contributing factor is not hard to identify: specialization. As Bill Belichick explained in a nine-minute press conference answer to a question about long snappers in September, special teams units have truly become that — units, in which kickers, long snappers and punters (who are almost always also holders) work together throughout practices and devote themselves wholly to working as one.
“That kind of whole unit has really evolved into, you know, specified snapper or a specified kicker, a specific punter, and generally the punter as the holder, so the three of those guys could work together all practice because they’re all available,” Belichick said. He assessed that friendlier field surfaces and indoor stadiums have helped, too.
It’s made kicking operations smoother, and sometimes you can see the effects on a given play. Gould’s winner at Lambeau, for instance, depended on a brilliant hold by punter Mitch Wishnowsky, who 20 years earlier might have ceded the job to a backup quarterback. With other responsibilities, that QB may have spent less time practicing holding — and may have failed to get the ball down for Gould’s right leg, as Tony Romo once did on a must-make playoff field goal attempt:
That kind of competence isn’t just a playoff thing, at least not this season. NFL kicking units have become nails on pressure kicks in general. In the 2021 regular season, they were 71-for-83 in the final two minutes (85.5 percent) of the fourth quarter. That’s easily the most makes and attempts in those situations of any season since at least 2000, even when adjusted for the league’s new 17-game schedule. And the 85.5 percent make rate on those kicks is the second-best this century, behind only 2003 (87.8 percent).
This year’s haul included a 10-for-16 mark on 50-plus yarders in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter. One was a record-breaking 66-yarder from the Baltimore Ravens’ Justin Tucker that beat the Detroit Lions as time expired in Week 3. It’s worth wondering how long that mark, as the longest field goal ever, will stand. If an attempt like that one were to come in the Super Bowl, it would be awfully difficult not to assume the kicker was about to drill it.
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