John McGrath: When it becomes this easy, it’s time to alter the goal posts

OlympianDecember 18, 2013 

John McGrath

FILE PHOTO

During the final game of the highest-scoring week in NFL history this past Monday night, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Detroit Lions without ever advancing the ball inside the Lions’ 7-yard line.

The Ravens accumulated all 18 of their points off the foot of Justin Tucker, a sweet-tempered University of Texas product who precedes each kicking attempt with a sign of the cross. Whether that’s a request for spiritual intervention or merely a superstition, you can’t deny something is working for Tucker. After Monday’s performance, he has made 33 consecutive field goals.

So confident was Ravens coach John Harbaugh in his team’s kicking game that he called for a Ray Rice draw play, with the clock down to less than a minute and the Ravens trailing 16-15, on a third-down and 10 at the Lions’ 45.

What appeared to be a bone-headed decision — Rice was stopped for a 2-yard gain — turned out to be a brilliant decision: It put Tucker within plausible distance of the 61-yard field goal that won the game and affected playoff races in both conferences.

Tucker’s extraordinary effort didn’t lack suspense. The sight of the ball slithering beyond the right goal post and just over the crossbar, with only inches to spare either way, was terrific theater.

But is it what football’s founding fathers had in mind when crossbars were set at 10 feet high and field goals, after some experimental tweaking, finally were deemed worthy of three points?

Talents such as Justin Tucker, it seems to me, suggest some rules have become outdated. The typical pro player is bigger and stronger and faster these days than his counterpart was 25 years ago, true, but kickers especially have evolved into a force nobody envisioned.

Since 1919, when the league we know as the NFL began operations, field goal kickers have broken the 60-yard barrier 14 times. Of those 14 monster boots, nine have been achieved since 2000 — including five between 2012 and 2013.

Tucker’s 61-yard score on Monday came just eight days after the Broncos’ Matt Prater blasted a 64-yarder in Denver, setting the NFL record for longest field goal. Prater, no doubt, was the beneficiary of Denver’s mile-high air. But altitude advantages can’t explain the 63-yard field goal San Francisco’s David Akers kicked last season at Green Bay.

In terms of yards for field goal kickers, 60 is the new 50, and 50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new chip shot.

Before European soccer-style sidewinders began replacing toes-to-the-ball kickers in the late 1960s, the Cleveland Browns’ Lou Groza was considered a lethal weapon, less a specialist than an offensive lineman with a special skill.

“The Toe,” honored as the placekicker on the NFL’s 50-year anniversary team — one of his ankle-high football shoes was sent to the Smithsonian Institution — retired with a career accuracy rate of 54.9 percent. If a 30-year-old Lou Groza is converting only 54.9 percent of his field-goal attempts with the 2013 Browns, he’s looking for a job.

Of the 264 field goals Groza made, it’s safe to assume only a handful were beyond 40 yards. (Kicking statistics from that era are sketchy, to the point of nonexistent.) From 40 yards and in, the Chicago Bears’ Robbie Gould hits at 95 percent — significantly better than former Seattle SuperSonic Ray Allen’s 89 percent career accuracy at the free-throw line.

On Dec. 1, Bears coach Marc Trestman figured his chances of beating Minnesota in overtime were as good as Gould. On a second-and-7 at the Vikings’ 29, with the game at stake, Trestman summoned the dead-eye kicker for a 47-yard attempt. Seven minutes remained in the extra period, plenty of time for the Bears to run the dependable Matt Forte off tackle for a few extra yards.

And why would a coach with a reputation as an offensive genius opt for a 47-yard field goal on second down?

“We were definitely in range, and I didn’t want to risk a possible penalty that would set us back, or a fumble or something unique,” Trestman explained. “There’s no guarantee that we would get any yards on second down or third down.”

Gould missed, the Bears went on to lose, but the larger issue is that the coach trusted his kicker more than he trusted the offense. Same with Harbaugh on Monday night.

Is this how football is supposed to be played? Two teams go all out for 60 minutes, and then when push comes to shove, instead of lining up 11 offensive players to attack 11 defensive players, the issue is decided off the side of a kicker’s foot?

Here’s a proposal: Raise the crossbar from 10 feet to, say, 12 feet. Rules that in 1920 made sense for 5-foot-8, 150-pound drop-kickers don’t make sense in 2013, when Seattle Seahawks fans have reason to be stunned if the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Steven Hauschka misses from 50 yards.

As research continues into the long-term consequences of concussions, I know the NFL has more pressing issues than rearranging the height of the crossbar. I know, too, that under commissioner Roger Goodell, every recent rules revision has been implemented to increase scoring.

But rule books aren’t sacrosanct. Rule books — like laws — should adjust to the times.

Attempting a 60-yard field goal used to border on the unthinkable. Now it’s very thinkable, and where does the thinking change? If 65-yard field goals are seen as routine (and they will be, by the end of this decade), the notion of a 70-yard field won’t be preposterous.

Nothing against kickers, but they’re really good. And they’re getting better every season. And when Justin Tucker blesses himself before converting his sixth field goal of the night, and his 33rd field goal attempt in 33 tries, it’s almost unfair.

Raise the crossbar. Raise it so John Harbaugh won’t give into the temptation of running a draw play on third-and-10, and Marc Trestman won’t settle for a field-goal attempt on second-and-7.

Raise it, if nothing else, in memory of the late Lou Groza, he of the 54.9 percent accuracy rate and owner of ankle-high football shoe donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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