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NFL's new lethal weapons? Field-goal kickers

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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The Raiders don't fear long field goals with Sebastian Janikowski. (US Presswire)  
The Raiders don't fear long field goals with Sebastian Janikowski. (US Presswire)  

Jacksonville doesn't score a touchdown, yet it upsets heavily-favored Baltimore. Perfect. It dovetails with what's going on in today's NFL, and what's going on is that long-distance kickers are having a significant impact on the game -– with the Jags' 12-7 victory the latest example.

Kicker Josh Scobee was responsible for all of Jacksonville's points, but that's not the story. This is: Three of his four field goals were 50 yards or longer, including the game-clincher with just over a 1 ½-minutes left.

Astonishing, right? Not really. I saw Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski do the same thing two weeks earlier to beat Houston -- with field goals of 55, 54 and 50 yards that would have made it from 60.

The point is: Kickers are more accurate than ever from faraway places.

The day before Scobee struck in Jacksonville, for instance, Denver's Matt Prater finished off Miami with a 52-yard field goal in overtime. Earlier that afternoon he missed kicks of 49 and 43 yards, but coach John Fox had enough faith in the guy to make the gutsy call.

If Prater missed, Miami would've had the ball first-and-10 at its 42, and the Broncos would have been in deep kimchi. But he didn't.

"The team expects me to make every kick," he said.

The way things are going, it should. Kickers are 41 of 58 (70.7 percent) on field-goal attempts of 50 or more yards, the most 50-yard field goals at this point in a season in NFL history. Janikowski and Scobee lead the league with five each, and Janikowski is no surprise. He's the guy former Raiders' coach Lane Kiffin once called on for a 76-yard attempt that fell short.

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"Yeah," said one coach, "I've seen Janikowski hit kicks of 70 in practice."

Apparently, so did Kiffin. Janikowski has been one of the league's strongest kickers for years. So has Scobee. But they're joined by more and more guys who are kicking longer and straighter than ever. In fact, through the first seven weeks, kickers are converting 86.5 percent of all field goals where they hit 81.9 percent a year ago at this time.

That's not just a significant jump; it's a record pace, ahead of the previous high of 84.4 percent through seven weeks, set in 2008.

"There's no question that kickers are getting better every year," said an AFC special teams coordinator. "They're bigger, better and stronger."

But that's only a partial explanation for what's going on. One guy I trust mentioned weather as a possible factor, saying he can't remember a year when Sundays were so perfect for kicking. Another suggested the raft of new stadiums that cut down on tricky winds, as well as a change in their surfaces, particularly with the installation of FieldTurf. Where once swirling winds and bad turf made Giants Stadium one of the league's worst stadiums for specialists, now they're not much of a factor at the new Met Life Stadium.

"Part of it is that there are more stadiums that are kicker friendly," said the Jets' Mike Westhoff. "But part of it is that offenses are moving the ball better, and there's little more of an offensive mentality instead of a defensive mentality."

Translation: Coaches may be more willing to gamble.

That was apparent in Miami last weekend. Denver's Fox -- who was a defensive coordinator -- didn't hesitate to call on Prater for the game-winning kick after he missed two earlier attempts from shorter distances. Fox may have figured, hey, what's there to lose except another ballgame? Anyway, he made the right choice.

"Are there more offensive coaches now?" asked another special teams coach. "Because offensive coaches are more willing to try long field goals than defensive coaches. They won't think about the loss of field position as much as a defensive coach, so they're more willing to take a shot."

Actually, there are more offensive coaches ... but not by much. Of the eight new head coaches hired after last season, five have backgrounds as offensive assistants -- including San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Oakland's Hue Jackson. Their kickers are a combined 8 for 9 on field goals of 50 yards or more.

But in Jacksonville, where Del Rio is a former defensive coordinator, Scobee is getting his chances, too. He hasn't missed on five tries from 50 yards and beyond, and Del Rio two years ago gave him nine chances at that distance, with Scobee nailing four.

"Let me tell you something," said a special teams assistant, "when I first started out in the league if you hit 80 percent of your field goals you were right up there at the top of the league. Now, 80 percent puts you in the middle of the pack. These guys are just better."

And maybe that's just it. Maybe it's that kickers are, as the man said, bigger, better and stronger. All I know is that where 50-yard field goals once were considered enormous risks, they aren't anymore. And where kickers once were considered carry-on luggage, they're difference makers who can -- and will -- determine the outcomes of games.

Please don't remind Baltimore.

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