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Garrett Hartley & The Esteem of NFL Kickers

If the late, great Rodney Dangerfield ever played professional football, I bet I could guess which position he played. He wouldn’t have played linebacker, or offensive lineman, or a fullback, or even a tight end. No, he would have been a kicker.

Why? It’s quite simple, really: kickers don’t get no respect.

Rodney Dangerfield: The NFL Placekicker of American Comedy.

Notorious for being “the most non-athletic position” in American football, placekickers have long been stigmatized by popular culture. The kicker is simply seen as a “fake” football player because, stereotypically, he is the one player on the bench who could just as easily be the team’s water boy. However, the kicker is a vital part of the game, as he could decide games with one kick, may that be by a field goal, extra point, kickoff or punt.

Lately, however, recent events have put the vital role of kickers at issue.

This past Sunday, Saints K Garrett Hartley, most known for hitting the game-winning field goal in last year’s NFC Championship game, missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime, which would have given his team the win. The Falcons took over from their own 11-yard line, and ultimately won the game. Despite his recent success as a placekicker, Hartley is now on the chopping block, with the Saints bringing in 46-year-old former Saints K John Carney to potentially replace him.

Gotdangit.

I know what you’re thinking, which is what a lot of people think every time they watch a placekicker shank what is seemingly an easy field goal or an extra point – “He missed the kick! That’s his only job! It’s unforgivable!”

Unforgivable enough to forget what he’d done for the Saints in the past year? Unforgivable enough for him to lose his job? Unforgivable enough to replace him with a placekicker in his mid-forties, who had been out of the league for years?

This is what I don’t get about the nature of placekicking in football. They are unappreciated as vital members of the team, as evidenced by the long-standing viewpoint of one Skip Bayless. Honestly, in the words of David Letterman, I wouldn’t give a kicker’s troubles to a monkey on a rock!

The placekicker is the position player most liable to potentially be the hero or the goat, based on one play, in any given game – especially big ones, like division games or playoff games. Try and name another player who, on a regular basis, has to deal with that kind of pressure. I guarantee you no one’s going to scrutinize a defensive back’s blown coverage, or a wide receiver’s blown route, or a offensive tackle’s missed block, or even a quarterback’s interception, as much as a placekicker’s missed chip-shot field goal or extra point.The bottom line is, there isn’t one player that has more pressure put upon him for one routine play than the placekicker.

“But,” I hear you nay-sayers chiming in, “there’s a reason those other players aren’t as scrutinized as a kicker.” Yes, yes, I know: because of the simple fact that those other things are not considered automatic. But, isn’t that the problem? I find it so ironic that, because we consider the field goal or the extra point so routine, so automatic, that we take for granted how difficult and pressure packed it really is.

The best kickers in the world are not 100% – not even from up-close. Personally, I thought “this is why they play the game” – for the instances where a kicker actually does miss a kick – otherwise, we would automatically give the extra point or the field goal to the team without even trotting the placekicker out there in the first place. We shouldn’t confuse the concepts of “automatic” and “routine”. For example, take NBA free throws. Now, I’ll give you a pat on the back if you can tell me the all-time leader in NBA free throw percentage. That’s right – it’s Mark Price. Now, tell me his percentage at the “charity stripe”. 100%? 98%? How about, realistically, 95%?

You’d be wrong. It’s 90.4%.

Huh. I thought I was good.

Anyway, honestly – one wrong move by the kicker, if he is off by one degree, he can easily miss any field goal or extra point attempt. And, because of that – especially if the game is big enough – he will never be fully appreciated as a position player.

Take Scott Norwood, for example. If you’re a football fan, you should remember Scott Norwood for the same reason people remembered Ray Finkle/Lois Einhorn in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” – missing a last-second field goal to win a Super Bowl for their respective teams (Norwood’s missed FG actually inspired that storyline, but that’s neither here nor there). The point is, Norwood is never going to be remembered for the 133 field goals he made in his career, or the field goal he made to put the Bills into Super Bowl XXVI. He will mostly be remembered only for the infamous “Wide Right” field goal miss in Super Bowl XXV, giving the New York Giants the victory, 20-19.

Pictured: Scott Norwood’s Hollywood legacy.

Hell, look at Adam Vinatieri – he will probably go down as one of the greatest placekickers in NFL history. He gave the New England Patriots Super Bowl victories three different times, with the strength of his accurate leg. Even then, he was released by the Patriots in 2004 – considered a legend by Patriots fans, and the organization let him go to play for their arch-rival Indianapolis Colts who, ironically enough, unseated them in the 2005 AFC Championship game.

And, I don’t even want to hear the argument that “it’s his one job – he can’t make those mistakes”; I could easily come back with, “can you say you haven’t made one mistake at your job?” Honestly, though, no one can, or should, be held to a standard like that. It’s not like, because Hartley missed that one field goal, he’s a liability for the rest of his career. I would understand if this was a character issue – he was caught drunk driving, or beating his wife – but this was one mistake he made on the field, that you can’t expect to happen again. This wasn’t a pattern, either – it was an isolated incident.

But, hey – he missed the field goal, and he lost the game, so he should lose his job. Oh, but, wait a second – he didn’t lose the game. It was overtime, and he missed a chip shot field goal to … give the ball to the Falcons offenseat their own 11-yard line. I’m sorry – wasn’t the defense supposed to get the ball back, especially when you have the offense pinned back that far in their own territory, so they could give Hartley a chance to win the game again? No, people didn’t want to talk about that – they just wanted one scapegoat to focus on, not eleven. Interesting that no one wants to blame the defense, here.

Then again, I wouldn’t say that to their faces.

Ultimately, stop scapegoating kickers to the point where you can start thinking anyone can do what they do, ergo, they ought to be perfect. With the pressure they go through on a given week, I’d say, give them a pass. At least, for the time being.

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