The NFL's best kicker explains why the PAT shanking epidemic won't last
Justin Tucker also reveals some of the trick kicks he has in his bag
If Jerry Seinfeld was sitting on the desk of an NFL pregame show, you could pretty much guarantee what he'd be saying these days: "What's up with these kickers? Have you ever noticed that nobody can make a stinking extra point anymore?"
It's something of an epidemic, I suppose, especially after a Week 11 in which 12 extra-point attempts actually missed. Even some of the kicking game's Alpha Dogs -- the Mason Crosbys and Matt Bryants and Stephen Gostkowskis of the world -- have succumbed to the mounting threat of the 33-yard PAT. It has infected the legion of NFL specialists to the point where no one is ignoring the point after try anymore -- which was exactly the league's intent in moving the kick back -- and it has the become the source of extreme anguish in the kicking fraternity.
Our resident kicking guru at CBS, former top kicker Jay Feely, attributes a fair amount of the renewed struggles league-wide with the PAT to mental blocks. Kickers used to be able to use the automatic PAT to get back in sync and form to make more challenging field goals, but now the PAT itself has become a hurdle. Which made me wonder: What does one of the few kickers who has appeared impervious to it all think about this PAT madness?
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (you can call him Updog) is having another triumphant season -- perhaps his best, which is saying something given his considerable achievements since entering the NFL in 2012. He's coming off three field goals of 50-plus yards in a win over the Bengals to keep the Ravens in first place in the AFC North. He's also one of the bigger personalities in the kicking ranks, and someone not afraid to let his emotions pour forth on the field in celebration or otherwise. So I wondered what Tucker thought of all the PAT paranoia, and whether he agreed with Feely's assertion that a lot of this has more to do with what's going on upstairs than with anyone's kicking foot.
"I think there could be some validity to that statement," Tucker told me during an interview for my B-more Opinionated podcast. "I think more than anything, and I can't really speak for anybody else around the league, but what I can tell you is that the way we approach a point after kick is we treat it like it's another field goal kick.
"And we've tried to do that with PATs since I came into the league, and when they were 20 yards away and not 33 yards, just because you want to hit every ball the same, ideally. Are you going to every single time -- no. But if you can make your standard deviation as small as possible, that ultimately leads to success and leads to good kicks."
I'm not 1,000 percent sure what that means, but I do know that Tucker is a man that takes his craft very seriously. He has admitted to being a bit of an amateur meteorologist, studying weather patterns at stadiums. His attention to detail and competitive streak are world class, as is his work ethic, and it has resulted in a perfect season to this point. Tucker is 15 for 15 on extra points and 27 for 27 on field goals (including a whopping seven from 50 or longer) and is doing so on one of the NFL's most inept offensive teams where every point is vital. The Ravens have just 17 offensive touchdowns this season, fewer than any other team other than the putrid Texans offense.
Should the Ravens win the AFC North, Tucker would very likely be their team MVP. He would be in my top 10 overall in the NFL at this point, for what it's worth, and he knows of what he speaks. So take heart, NFL fans, the league's best kicker is fairly certain he and his brethren will rise above this recent dip in form and overcome the PAT crisis in short order.
"I think perhaps guys have taken their mentality for attempting a 20-yard PAT and tried to apply it to a 33-yard PAT," said Tucker, who also revealed his picks for a Kicker Battle Royale on the podcast. "But there simply is just less room for error, and I think the sample size of kicks from 33 yards away for try kicks, the sample is very small at this point. And I think eventually -- not even eventually but shortly -- you'll see the numbers balance themselves out just like every part of the game. This will evolve into guys connecting not at a 93-94 percent clip, but again at 98-99 percent. It will just take time."
It has taken Tucker no time, of course, but he is the exception to the rule.
It's simpler to list the regular kickers who have not missed a PAT this season (Tucker, Dan Bailey, Adam Vinatieri, Sebastian Janikowski, Phil Dawson, Andrew Franks, Greg Zuerlein and Chris Boswell) than to list those who have missed at least one. So consider me among those shaking his head last Sunday, in a must-win game for the Bengals, when Marvin Lewis opted to let Tucker attempt a kick in a tight game from 57 yards, rather than accept a holding penalty that would've taken him out of range -- though I suppose 67 yard may have been in Tucker's repertoire. With the option to give Baltimore's feckless offense a shot at third-and-forever, he instead chose to put a Big Game Kicker in precisely the spot he relishes.
Tucker, whose celebrations reveal his fire and competitive streak, responded exactly as the 70,000 people in the stands expected him to: By drilling the kick. This was a duel Lewis, whose kicker has been shanking PATs and field goals lately, should never have challenged Tucker to.
"As soon as I saw the official waiving his arms saying the penalty was going to be declined," Tucker said, about to insert tongue into cheek, "that's when I kind of knew Marvin thinks I'm going to make it, so I'm going to make it."
Tucker, a true character who busts out tap-dancing moves and an operatic voice in his local commercials for Royal Farms, a Maryland convenience store chain, reiterated that under the perfect conditions a 70-yard field goal is within his range. And, while not wanting to tip his hand (or incur the wrath of head coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach), he did reveal that a Ribona -- along the lines of the behind-the-leg onside kick Boswell botched when Pittsburgh faced Baltimore -- is in his arsenal of trick kicks as well. "Without giving away trade secrets, we like to have just about every kick you can come up with in the bag," he said.
So stay tuned. If the Ravens remain in this playoff hunt into January, the league's most confident and cinematic kicker will most certainly have plenty to do with it. He may deliver a joke or two along the way, but he won't be ending up in any kicking punchlines.
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