We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Stefan Fatsis
To: Tom Scocca, Drew Magary, Nate Jackson
Watching a long field goal gets me so fired up I want to dust off my football kicking holder and bang a few through the uprights myself. The yawning space between the kicker and the goal posts, the audaciousness of the endeavor, the pre-kick tension, the soaring arc of the ball itself. When I faux-kicked for the Broncos in training camp in 2006, my personal-best 40-yarders (on an empty practice field) felt like Super Bowl winners. Kicking a football far is hard, and hell of a lot of fun.
So, naturally, I spent the morning deconstructing the video of Sebastian Janikowski's record-tying 63-yard field goal in the Raiders' 23-20 win over the Broncos in Denver. Before I go all dork kicker, let me just say how elated I am at how much of the conversation this season has revolved around the kicking game. Is the NFL conspiring to eliminate kickoffs? Will kickers blast it out of the end zone or loft it to the goal line? What will the kicker do? And now Sea Bass joins a club consisting of Jason Elam of the Broncos, who made his kick in the same circumstances (the last play of the first half) in the same city against the Jaguars in October 1998, and the Saints' stub-footed Tom Dempsey, who made a last-second game-winner in New Orleans against the Lions in November 1970. More headlines for kickers! Yay!
That Janikowski did what he did last night should surprise absolutely no one. Dude goes 6-2, 250, and has a redwood leg and driver distance. In 12 years on mostly terrible Oakland teams—a fact that has depressed his scoring totals—he's made 79 percent of his field goals, and he has improved with experience and opportunity. And, while he's had a reputation as a meathead troublemaker, Janikowski hasn't been arrested—not for fighting in bars or restaurants, for bribery, for GHB possession, for DUI, or anything else!—since 2003. That he was the rare kicker selected in the first round of the NFL draft only made the mockery easier.
But because of his sheer leg strength—and maybe the fact that the Raiders have never had much to lose—Janikowski has, especially in the last five years, been able to persuade his coaches to occasionally let him kick for the moon. "Every pregame I try to tell the coaches that I can kick it 65-70 yards," he told SI.com before this season. Not every kicker is confident enough to do that, and most coaches are too risk-averse to attempt superlong field goals at any time other than the end of the half or regulation, and even then they'll usually opt for the even lower-probability end-zone jump ball. Not when you have Sea Bass, though. Check out his 64-yard attempt (1:20 mark) against Houston in 2007, which clanged off the middle of the right upright, or the 76-yarder he was allowed to try in 2008. "The percentage was low, but it was possible," he said afterward.
Janikowski's coaches aren't the only ones who seem more willing to let kickers go long. Rob Bironas of the Titans, who made a 60-yarder to win a game in 2006, was allowed to try a 67-yarder on Sunday (short and wide right). Five of the nine 60-plus-yarders in NFL history have occurred since 2006. So it's only a matter of time before someone goes longer than 63. Janikowski is no doubt already lobbying for the chance.
With the existing logjam at the top, though, I think it's crucial to convene a Slate/Deadspin Kicking I-Team (of one) to analyze the record holders. Field goals from the "same" distance are never actually the same distance, and kicks in reality travel different distances. So how do Dempsey, Elam, and Janikowski measure up?
(If we did footnotes like other sports sites, this would be one: Sure, Elam's and Janikowski's kicks were made in mile-high Denver, and probably traveled a skosh farther in the thin air than they would have elsewhere. But noted football physicist Timothy Gay has told me that while he thinks altitude helps kickoffs and punts carry four or five yards farther, he's not convinced it has any effect on shorter field goals and only a small one on longer kicks. Anyway, this ain't the Olympics. Records aren't asterisked on account of wind speed or altitude. The kicks count.)
Dempsey's kick was the most dramatic (a game winner, albeit in a meaningless game, not that you'd know it from the fantastic play-by-play call) and a record-destroyer (the previous long was 56 yards, by Bert Rechichar of the Baltimore Colts in 1953). Alas, it was the shortest, both by on-field distance and actual kick distance. Dempsey's holder, Joe Scarpati, clearly places the ball on the Saints' 37-and-a-quarter-yard line—the goalposts were on the goal line in those days—for what would measure out to a 62-and-three-quarters-yards kick. As for total distance, the kick clears the crossbar by inches. I've always loved how the official bends down as the ball descends to make sure he sees it travel above the bar.
It's difficult to tell precisely from this video, but Broncos holder Tom Rouen's spot of Elam's kick appears to be on the front edge of the hashmark at the Broncos' 47-yard line. (Elam told me that Rouen looked up at him just before the snap and said, "You know this is for the record, don't you?") So the make was an honest 63 yards. The ball flies through the goalposts several feet above the crossbar and is dropped by a ball boy about six feet out of the end zone.
Finally, Janikowski's ball clears the crossbar by more than Dempsey's but by less than Elam's. (Janikowski said he "didn't hit it that good.") So Elam wins Longest Distance Traveled by Ball. But Janikowski gets Longest Actual Kick by Field Yardage. Watch Raiders holder Shane Lechler's right hand in the first two seconds of the video. His fingers caress the turf an inch or two behind the hash mark at the Raiders' 47—which would make Janikowski's distance five or six inches longer than Elam's. (NFL hashmarks are four inches thick.) You can't tell with certainty from ESPN's long-distance shot of the actual kick whether Lechler actually hits his mark. But when a football is snapped on target—and this one was—the placement of the ball by NFL holders is extremely accurate.
And if the ball's nose was indeed set down beyond the 47-yard line? Would that make Janikowski's kick a record-setting 64-yarder? Neither Janikowski nor Lechler appears to have complained after the game. But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Raiders plan to appeal the spot of the ball. Which is very Raiders, of course, and also very futile (which is also very Raiders).
NFL rules are clear. "If any point of the football when kicked rests on or above any yard stripe, credit distance from that yard stripe," the rulebook states. So Elam's kick, spotted right on the hash, was definitely 63 yards, and if the fat part of Janikowski's ball arced over the hash, it too was an exact 63. Otherwise? "If all of the ball rests between yard stripes, credit distance from the yard line nearest the intended goal." (Italics mine.) In other words, round down. By that definition, Janikowski's kick of 63 plus an inch or two is officially 63—and Dempsey's should be 62. I have no idea whether the rule was the same in 1970, but I sure hope the league rounded up back then. Tom Dempsey and his shoe should never have an asterisk.
You may now resume discussing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, because we don't get nearly enough of that.
Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." His latest book is A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL.