With their drive stalled within the 20 yard line of South Carolina, the Georgia Bulldogs trotted out their reliable kicker for what appeared to be a chip shot. Rodrigo Blankeship — aka ‘Mr. Reliable’ — has consistently answered the call for the UGA. His 85.7% success rate is a testament to that reliability. However, as any analyst or fan can attest, anomalies make what is certain seem fallible. Blakenship drove his foot into the football from 42 yards away. The ball curled towards the left upright, maintaining its trajectory at ample height and distance. The kicker looked in horror as the kick went slightly left, ending the game and the Bulldogs’ undefeated streak. The ending of this SEC East battle was the perfect illustration of a growing trend in football.
You can’t trust kickers in 2019.
Kickers, punters and essentially any players labelled ‘specialist’ exist in their own subculture of a football team. It’s difficult for a coach or teammate to understand the preparation it takes to make a kick when called upon. Unlike the other two phases of the game, special teams has the biggest difference between practice and game day. For young men recruited heavily out of high school, you’re constantly reminded of the burden that comes along with being a scholarship athlete. Each snap on a given Saturday is an opportunity to prove your worthiness to a rabid fanbase that tracked your college offers ahead of National Signing day.
Kickers/punters see a marginal amount of FBS offers coming out of high school. It’s not because kickers are not regarded as athletes. It’s because kickers are an afterthought. Despite football’s innovations and incorporation of analytic data, there’s a lack of interest in studying place kicking. Any coach in the sport will tell you that scoring points is the main objective on a given drive. That said, there’s a reason why field goals are known as ‘settling for three.’ The only people who seem to care about field goals as much as kickers are those who have friendly wagers with sportsbooks. How many times have you heard from a kicker ahead of the Super Bowl? Who was the last punter/kicker that was featured in a pregame spotlight? Kickers are expected to be automatic when it comes to making field goals and extra points within their range. Essentially, just do your job and get out of the way.
The NFL moved its extra point attempts back to the 15-yard line from the previous spot of the 2-yard line in 2015. The change has increased the number of missed extra kicks after touchdowns. The PAT — point after touchdown — was so automatic that it had a 97% success rate. Six weeks into the NFL season, 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams have missed an extra point. In that same timeframe, just five teams remain perfect on the season on field goal attempts. It’s certainly hard to be a kicker these days.
While the position doesn’t shoulder the weight of the team like a quarterback, it’s amazing how many times a game boils down to a single kick. It’s a make-or-miss league more than ever. The Falcons can attest to that fact after Matt Bryant lined up to tie the game late in the fourth quarter with the extra point attempt. It was a simple formality, before the Cardinals and Falcons move on to overtime. Instead, Bryant missed, the Cardinals emerged victorious and Bryant faced tough questions after blowing what many still consider a chip shot. After the miss, you saw the Falcons’ kicker dejected on the sideline. As an impartial observer, it was difficult to see the pain on his face as the reality of the situation sunk in.
But that is now a common occurrence across the league. Teams are cycling through kickers faster than a soccer club. The good ones who are reliable and consistent are now in high demand. Think of it as the low-end theory that applies to quarterbacks. If you have a good kicker, you keep him. If you don’t, you just keep searching until you find one that works.
In the meantime, impatient teams and coaches try to avoid kicks as much as the game will allow. They go for first down conversions on fourth down. They opt for two-point converts as opposed to the extra one. While some have tried to work around the issue, the specialists remain integral to the success of a football team no matter how you dice it.
But that’s the kicker: You can’t trust ‘em