Sunday, November 13, 2011

Some Things Can't Be Coached or Recruited

The most easily documented fact of NFL life is that kickers are better than ever. Placekickers get more accurate from longer distances on an almost yearly basis.

Back in 1987, my rookie year on the Pats' beat, coaches from several teams said that the over/under line on the distance that constituted a kick a guy ought to make from one you just hope he makes was 39 yards. That's laughable today. If a kicker can't make 50 percent from outside 50 yards he's flirting with unemployment.

Since pro football players were all once college football players, it stands to reason that out there somewhere, in fact on most campus somewheres, college placekickers are getting better than ever, too. I have no doubt they are -- just not at the schools where those kickers are most needed.

In successive weeks, two previously unbeaten teams, Alabama and Boise State, lost their first games and in all likelihood their chance to play in the BCS championship game because their kickers missed kicks that were not only makeable, but damn near inside the leather. This was the second straight year this happened to Boise.

Alabama and Boise are two of the nation's most successful programs, each under smart, maniacally detail-oriented coaches. I know Nick Saban thinks kicking is important. I'm sure Alabama scours the South for high school kickers. It probably scouts soccer teams. Within its recruiting universe I'm sure Boise does the same. Didn't seem to help this season.

So what gives? College football is played by college age people, so blunders and choking by all personnel are baked into the big game cake. The LSU and Alabama quarterbacks didn't exactly distinguish themselves in their big game. Boise running backs fumbled away two scoring drives yesterday. Having more time to think about what they do, why shouldn't kickers fail due to mental stress more often than other players?

Still, as I think back to the very top college teams of the past decade, I cannot recall one whose kicking game was considered a main element of its success. I can't name any of their kickers. And that memory hole, I think, is the tell as to why college powerhouses wind up with kicking that's weaker than the rest of their game. They don't need it.

Because college ball has more teams than the NFL, the laws of mathematical distribution mean that it has more talent mismatches, too. How many close games do Alabama or Boise play a season? One? Two? Three at most for sure. Football is a sport based on repetition. Placekickers on the best college teams don't get enough chances to know what it means to really matter. During the Boise game, one of the announcers noted that Boise's kicker had all of four (!!!!) field goal attempts in the 2011 season. His teammates were too good for his good, and their own.

Kickers on the top college teams are used to booting five to seven extra points and kicking off a lot under absolutely no pressure whatsoever. Then, all of a sudden, they're cast into the decisive role in a game their team absolutely must win, with the dreams of their teammates and entire school community riding on their performance. No wonder they fail. They are unfamiliar with the most important experience of their jobs.

There's really no point in scouting, recruiting or drafting a kicker unless said kicker plays for a team that needed those three points almost every week.


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