The Rugby World Cup Reveals How To Make NFL Kicking More Exciting

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From: Stefan Fatsis
To: Tommy Craggs, Nate Jackson

Oh, Nate. If you were the wide-open Broncos receiver sprinting down the middle of the field with nothing but green grass and white paint between you and the end zone, and if Tebow overthrew you by 15 yards, and if such plays happened often enough that you had little confidence that your new quarterback was able to execute the basic requirements for playing quarterback in the NFL, I'm not sure you'd be quite so charitable. As you pointed out elsewhere, Tim Tebow might be a hard-working, lousy practice player and a game-day delight. But while "Throw to Whomever the Fuck You Want" would be awesomely liberating for players and occasionally fun for fans, it wouldn't necessarily advance the team goal of defeating a specific opponent, and often it would result in failure, some of it epic. Which is why I would posit that the Broncos who are trailing 15-0 with three minutes to play and Tim Tebow at quarterback will far more often than not still be trailing with no seconds to play. Do you believe in miracles? Not against NFL defenses, not every week.

Let's wait a decade to see whether Tebow's Adjusted Comeback Efficiency makes him more Peyton Manning or Trent Dilfer. Like Tommy, I've had it up to Ephesians with Orange Jesus. Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick have engineered spectacular comebacks this season. The difference between them and Tebow is that they didn't suck before doing so. In any event, the real hero of the Broncos-Dolphins game was the guy who kicked the 52-yard, game-winning field goal in overtime, Matt Prater. Did you watch the ball? It passed the very top of the left upright on its way to the very top of the protective netting. It was good, as we kickers like to say, from at least 70.

No surprise there. In his short career, Prater has converted 10 of 14 field-goal attempts from 50 yards or more, or 71.4 percent. (He's better from long distance than from between 40 and 49 yards, where he's made 18 of 31.) Prater is on the short list to break the NFL's 63-yard field-goal record, which was matched by Sebastian Janikowski in Week 1. He made a 59-yarder last year, missed a 69-yarder in the preseason this year, and made a 68-yarder under live conditions during one training camp.

With the game on the line on Sunday, Denver put its faith in the mighty Prater, not Tebow. With 9:30 left in overtime, Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams sacked and recovered a fumble by Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore at the Miami 36-yard line. That was close enough for Denver head coach John Fox. He called three straight handoffs into the line—one toward the right hashmark, one back toward the middle of the field, and the third back to the right—for a total gain of two yards, and then sent Prater out to attempt the game-winner. The CBS announcers, Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots, called this sequence as if it was perfectly routine to set up the proper spot of the ball for a 50-plus-yarder. Harlan noted that Prater made a 63-yarder in the same direction during warmups.

The same scenario was repeated during Monday night's poke-out-your-eyeballs game between Baltimore and Jacksonville. After the Ravens cut the score to 9-7 with 2:02 left, the Jaguars recovered Baltimore's onside kick on the 37-yard line. Rather than allow quarterback Blaine Gabbert the chance to earn a first down and take a knee to end the game, Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio had Maurice Jones-Drew run the ball up the middle three times for a total of four yards, setting up a 51-yard field-goal that Josh Scobee nailed easily. (It was Scobee's third 50-plus-yarder of the game, tying an NFL record.)

As Tommy noted, the conservative play-calling in the Denver game might have reflected a lack of faith in Tebow's ability to engineer a short drive to get the kicker as close as possible to the target. The same could have been said of the Jaguars and Gabbert. But the decisions seemed to me more about sensible risk management. In both cases, missed field goals would have allowed the opposition to drive just a short distance to win the game. Both coaches, however, concluded there was a greater likelihood of something going wrong in the two or four or eight plays necessary to gain 20 more yards (especially with their unproven QBs) than of Prater or Scobee missing from beyond 50.

That might be pro-kicker bias, but I'm sticking to it. The modern kicker, as I've written before, is freakishly good, and getting ever stronger and more accurate from farther away. Coaches, to their credit, seem increasingly practical about the realities of the kicker. Yeah, he'll miss a few (Prater gacked two against Miami, from 43 and 49 yards). But he's as, if not more, reliable than the rest of the offense.

Historically, kickers' gains have generated proposals to make kicking harder (narrow the goal posts) and less frequent (eliminate the extra point). Far be it from me to endorse either idea; as Billy Bragg says, there is no real substitute for a ball struck squarely and firmly. But there are ways to inject more strategy into the kicking game without, say, requiring kickers to wear blindfolds.

One is to widen the hashmarks. Hashmarks were first adopted in college football, the dominant version of the game in the early 1900s. They were added in the NFL first in 1932 for a bizarre, blizzard-induced, indoor playoff between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans and then permanently in 1933. The distance between the hashes narrowed over time—to their current width, 18 feet, 6 inches, in 1972—for two reasons: to eliminate short kicks from ridiculously difficult angles and, more important, to stimulate offense. The closer the ball is to the center of the field at the start of a play, the more of the field the offense can utilize without the defense knowing which side it favors. That came in handy as the NFL transformed into a passing game.

Widening the hashmarks—they're 40 feet apart in college—would increase the challenge for NFL kickers. But the threat of curbing offense even slightly makes that a nonstarter. Why not, though, make kickers have at it from wherever the ball is spotted on the previous play? Third-down run falls short 10 yards from the sideline? Snap it from there. Quarterback scores on a naked bootleg to the flag? Kick the extra point from the sideline. Coaches would have to decide whether to play third down toward the center of the field or to confuse the defense with a play to the side. Kickers would have to broaden their skill set.

The inspiration for this notion comes not only from early American football, in which kicking was the central part of the game (Jim Thorpe! Pat O'Dea!), but also from its true progenitor, rugby. I watched some of the Rugby World Cup from New Zealand, which ended on Sunday. Setting aside the more brain-friendly tackling engendered by the absence of helmets and shoulder pads, the kicking game was entrancing. The wide-angled extra points, the strategic forays to the center of the field to set up on-the-move drop kicks, the penalties struck from huge distances. I wept every time New Zealand's Haka leader, scrum-half, and fill-in kicker Piri Weepu missed one wide (which was often).

We've already had an old rugby rule rear its head in the NFL this season. By tweaking the kicking game, we could see not only whence America's Game has come, but where it might be fun to have it return.

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.