Last July, after three draining days of fine tuning their technique on the practice field and pushing themselves to their breaking point in the weight room, a handful of the NFL’s top kickers decided to have some fun.
Jason Myers, Matt Prater, Brandon McManus, Daniel Carlson and Tristan Vizcaino took turns trying to one-up each other by bombing long-range field goals from farther and farther away.
The sun-splashed football field at a swanky San Diego private school served as the backdrop for a remarkable display of accuracy and power. Someone comfortably kicked a 58-yard field goal. Then somebody else drilled one from 60. Then it was 62. Pretty soon, guys were sending 65 yarders sailing through the uprights like it was nothing.
“These guys are some of the best in the world,” retired NFL veteran and kicking coach Nick Novak told Yahoo Sports. “They naturally want to compete. You get their juices flowing, and they’ll put on a show.”
In many ways, the first five weeks of the NFL season have mirrored that friendly long-distance kicking competition at Novak’s offseason special teams boot camp. NFL kickers have already attempted 61 field goals from 50 yards or beyond and have converted 37 of them, putting them on pace to smash both season-long records even if the league hadn’t tacked on a 17th game to its schedule this year.
Twenty-five years ago, NFL kickers attempted 58 field goals of 50-plus yards. That number rose to 71 two decades ago and to 140 by 2011. This season, kickers are on pace to try 207 field goals from beyond 50 yards by the end of the regular season.
The true measure of how far kickers have extended their range might be the number of times coaches have entrusted them to try from 60 yards and beyond. There have already been six such attempts at the end of halves this season with two makes, most notably Justin Tucker’s record-breaking 66 yarder to beat the Detroit Lions in Week 3.
In NFL history, there have been 19 field goals made from 61 yards or beyond. Fifteen of them have come in the past decade. Nine since 2017.
“Back when I was playing, anything over 50 was a toss-up,” said Mike Hollis, who kicked for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2001. “You hoped you made it, but if not, it was considered OK. Nowadays if you miss a 50 yarder, it’s like, ‘Ehhh, you should have made that.’ The expectations have gone up.”
There are a handful of reasons why NFL kickers have extended their range and improved their accuracy since Hollis’ era. The caliber of athlete the position attracts has dramatically improved. So has the position-specific instruction, sports psychology and strength training available to kickers at a young age. It also helps that snappers and holders have come a long way, as have bad-weather field conditions at NFL stadiums.
Those developments all raise a compelling question: What’s the limit to how far a human being can kick a football? Will we ever see NFL kickers bombing field goals from 70 or even 75 yards? Could the day come when kickers are dependable enough from 60-plus yards that coaches feel comfortable trying those kicks in scenarios other than the dying seconds of halves?
“A 70-yarder is what’s next,” Novak said.
To assess how soon, you have to understand the kicking position’s roots and where it’s headed.
Taking the guesswork out of kickers
Before they commanded seven-figure salaries, inspired splashy T-shirts or starred in Snickers commercials, kickers once struggled to prove their worth. Scholarship offers were rare for high school kickers for decades because of their perceived lack of positional value and the way that recruiting operated at the time.
College football coaches often relied on rudimentary statistics like makes, attempts and distance to assess a kicker’s value. There was no way for coaches to account for the many variables that could influence those numbers, from field conditions, to climate, to the strength of a team’s offense, to whether a kicker chose to kick off a tee or not.
Aware that they were operating mostly off guesswork, college coaches sought to minimize their risk. Only a few proven high school kickers each year received scholarship offers. The rest settled for invitations to enroll in college as preferred walk-ons. Once on campus, they could then compete to earn the starting job and, if they were lucky, a scholarship.
That approach remained entrenched across college football until an ex-UCLA kicker stumbled into an idea for change.
Chris Sailer was at the end of an All-American college career in 1999 when his former high school coach asked him to begin working with one of the team’s kickers. Nick Folk had a booming right leg and a knack for hitting field goals under pressure. What the future 14-year NFL veteran did not have was a scholarship offer.
Folk was ready to give up football and accept a soccer scholarship until Sailer stepped in and advocated on his behalf. Sailer called Pac-10 coaches who once recruited him and promised them, “This kid’s better than I was.”
“Nick ended up getting one offer from the University of Arizona,” Sailer told Yahoo Sports. “If I hadn’t done that, he was set to play soccer.”
Helping Folk land a scholarship opened Sailer’s mind to the possibility that there was a market for more than just kicking instruction. He gradually expanded his business to offer a rankings component and national and regional showcase camps designed to help high school kickers, punters and long snappers get noticed by college coaches.
Nearly two decades later, Sailer has helped revolutionize the way that specialists are recruited. Elite punting, kicking and snapping prospects gravitated to his camps and college coaches grew to trust his eye for talent.
In 1995, when Sailer came out of high school, he says he was one of a handful of kickers in his class to receive college scholarships. A quarter century later, major-college programs know they have to make a scholarship offer to have realistic hope of landing a dependable kicker.
“There are very few schools that still operate the old way of taking three or four local guys and letting the best man win,” Sailer said. “Because of that over the years, more and more athletes have chosen this position. They see that now, hey, I can get a scholarship. I can get drafted. I can get paid more than minimum salary. There’s just more reward to the position than there used to be.”
The stereotype of the scrawny, unathletic kicker indeed is mostly dead — or should be anyway. Harrison Butker flaunted a 42-inch vertical leap on social media last year. Aldrick Rosas is a former hard-hitting free safety and running back. Jake Elliott’s 4.79-second 40-yard dash time at the 2017 NFL draft combine was faster than 15 quarterbacks that year including Patrick Mahomes.
“These guys today are such good athletes,” Hollis, the former Jaguars kicker, told Yahoo Sports. Hollis was a 5-foot-7, 180-pound ex-walk-on who describes his own athletic ability as “maybe a little above average.” Says Hollis with a laugh, “The level of athlete that the kicking position attracts is totally different today.”
Kickers get coaching
The evolution of field goal kicking isn’t just a product of the position drawing superior athletes. Today’s kickers are also specializing in the sport younger and receiving more nuanced coaching and more position-specific training.
In 1995, Adam Vinatieri was a self-taught 22-year-old kicker with a powerful leg but a history of missing as many attempts as he made. Late in his junior season at South Dakota State, his inconsistency amid howling winds and heavy snowfall even got him benched for two games in favor of a toe-kicking defensive lineman.
“He had to learn through trial and error,” South Dakota State coach Mike Daly once told Yahoo Sports. “As we were going through drills with the offense and defense, he’d go over to the other field and just kick by himself.”
Vinatieri didn’t figure out how to harness his talent until after college when he first began working with an experienced kicking coach while bartending on the side. In 1996, he hit nine of 10 field goals for the World League’s Amsterdam Admirals. He returned home that summer to an invitation to training camp from the New England Patriots.
An All-Pro kicker rising from nowhere was common in the 1990s. Nowadays, it’s more difficult to imagine another kid following Vinatieri’s path.
Today’s best kickers often specialize in the position as early as middle school and benefit from the increased access to kicking coaches, private lessons and instructional camps. As former Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Michael Husted says, “When I was in high school, there was like one kicking camp in the whole country. Now there seems to be a pop-up-shop every other corner.”
Kicking coaches equate their role to what a swing coach does for a golfer. There are subtle technical differences between the methods every kicking coach teaches, but most emphasize many of the same key tenets. Their pupils learn to take an angled approach, plant 9 to 12 inches from the ball and strike with the hard bone on top of the instep of their foot. After kickers make contact just below the midpoint of the ball, they’re taught to maintain forward momentum and follow through toward their target.
Since kickers often step onto the field in pressurized scenarios and face backlash if they miss a potential game-saving kick, the proper mental approach is as important as anything physical. Husted urges the young kickers he coaches to work with a sports psychologist and to visualize the success they hope to achieve. They’ll get a stack of index cards, write different scenarios on each of them and then pull out one at a time.
“Say it says, opening drive, fourth-and-10 on the 20, left hash,” Husted said. “They’ll visualize themselves jogging onto the field, finding their spot, taking their steps back and over and then seeing the kick as they would see it.”
What has changed even more than how kickers are taught is the way they train.
When he kicked for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the mid-to-late 1990s, Hollis recalls working out in the weight room alongside the defensive backs. Ten of the 12 sets of lifts he had to do would mirror what the defensive backs were assigned. Only two core-focused ones were different.
“I’m in the weight room doing heavy squats and heavy power cleans,” Holllis said with a laugh. “They defined that as a kicker’s workout.”
Two decades later, it’s no longer considered a badge of honor for a kicker to complete the same lifts the rest of the team does. Kickers instead work with trainers who design a regimen tailored specifically to their position.
Novak has partnered with Smith to train the high school, college and pro kickers he coaches. Smith curates workouts for them up to four days a week during the offseason to build their core strength, power, flexibility and agility. It’s Smith’s goal for his kickers to always be able to find strength and stability to kick smoothly and accurately from distance no matter how fatigued they get during a workout or game.
“It’s all combining to make it possible for these guys to hit these long field goals,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be long before these guys start hitting 60 yarders, and people are like, ‘Oh yeah. No big deal.’”
70-yard field goals are in sight
Anytime he works with a group of high school kickers, Husted typically opens by asking the same question.
“Who here had their best kick ever on an extra point?” the ex-Buccaneers kicker will say. When a bunch of hands go up, Husted explains, “It’s because you weren’t trying to hammer the ball. You were relaxed and you knew you had the distance.”
What Husted wants young kickers to realize is that the secret to nailing 60-yard field goals isn’t closing your eyes, holding your breath and swinging as hard as you can. It’s more about taking a deep, calming breath, repeating your usual motion and striking the ball just right so that it explodes off the foot yet feels like you barely hit it.
Most NFL-caliber kickers now have range out to at least 60 yards. The strongest-legged can hit from 65 yards and beyond, especially at high altitude, with a gust of wind at their back or using a well-worn football with a little air removed.
Only when attempting a field goal beyond a range they find comfortable do NFL kickers sometimes adjust their technique. That might mean a longer approach or a more forceful leg swing in hopes of generating extra power. What it almost never means is a line-drive kick at a lower trajectory because of the threat of a rusher blocking it.
Examine Tucker’s record 66-yard field goal from late September, and you’ll see him take two extra steps backward just before beginning his approach. Other kickers view that as a calculated risk to get some extra oomph, a shrewd move in retrospect considering that his kick ricocheted off the crossbar on its way through the uprights.
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
“I think that’s just a veteran kicker knowing what his limitations are, knowing that he needs to get a little bit more into it and trusting every other part of his process,” said retired NFL punter David Brader, now a successful kicking coach.
There are other kickers in the NFL with a 66-yard field goal in their arsenal, but none can be sure they’ll get an opportunity to match or beat Tucker’s record in a game. NFL coaches still seldom try kicks of 60 yards and beyond because the downside of a miss is giving the opposing team the ball at around midfield. Even when there are just a few ticks left in a half, the opposing team still gets a crack at returning a missed kick for a score.
That’s a risk that was driven home hours before Tucker hit from 66 yards. That same day, Prater fell a couple yards short from 68 at the end of the first half and a Jacksonville Jaguars player returned the kick 109 yards for a touchdown.
It’s important to remember, however, that it wasn’t too long ago that the same sentiment applied to field goals of 50 yards and beyond. Only once NFL kickers began making more of those than they missed did they begin receiving more and more opportunities.
Kicking coaches say they expect to see the same pattern emerge with field goals of 60 or more yards. Most don’t envision Tucker’s record having a shelf life of more than a few years. A few even believe it won’t be long before a team calls upon their kicker to attempt a last-gasp 70-yard field goal and he strikes it just right.
“If the technique gets better than it is now, I’m telling you the sky’s the limit,” Hollis said. “You’ll see 70-yard game-winning kicks. Maybe even 75.”
What excites Novak is the combination of power and reliability that today’s best kickers boast. Five of them demonstrated that to Novak firsthand a few months ago on a sun-splashed afternoon in San Diego.
“When these guys kick from 60, 65 yards, me being a kicker, I get up off my couch,” Novak said. “It’s exciting because you know the guy attempting it can make it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”