Vikings career scoring leader Fred Cox, still one of the team’s more beloved players 38 years after his last game, went 2-for-24 on field-goal attempts of 50 yards or longer during his 14-year career.
“Yeah,” said Vikings current kicker Blair Walsh, “but I don’t think Fred was in a kicking camp when he was 11.”
Times have changed for NFL kickers over the decades. Better, stronger athletes with improved training at younger ages are growing up to kick on better surfaces in what sure seems like a kinder, gentler climate.
The first year the NFL kept track of field goals was 1932. Six were made leaguewide. Attempts weren’t tracked.
After attempts started to be tracked in 1938, we know that kickers made 40 percent of their field-goal tries in the 1940s, 48.2 percent in the 1950s and 56 percent in the 1960s.
Cox led the league in scoring in 1969 and 1970. He was All-Pro both years. In 1969, he led the league in field-goal percentage (.703). He made 26 of 37. Today, those 11 misses would be the primary focus.
“I probably wouldn’t be here,” Walsh said when asked what 70.3 percent would get him in today’s game. “I don’t think anybody would. I don’t care how good you were.”
Walsh knows Cox and respects the straight-on kicker who banged out 1,365 points and another team-record 282 field goals.
“It’s just the era we’re in,” Walsh said. “You’re expected to make them all. Even if you look back 10 years ago, you’re looking at guys who if they made 85 percent, that would have been a very, very good year. But now, 85 percent is middle of the road. Crazy.”
One could make the argument that kickers have never been more important in NFL history. There have been 108 games (51.9 percent) decided by seven points or fewer, the most ever through 14 weeks. There have been 59 fourth-quarter comeback victories, the fourth most through 14 weeks. And the rule change implementing the longer PATs (33 yards from 20) has created the chaos that was intended.
After five consecutive years of kickers making 99 percent of PATs, the league is at 94 percent. There were more misses in Week 13 (nine) than all of last season (eight).
“I would say around the NFL, you could say this is sort of the age of the kicker,” Walsh said. “You’re expected to make everything. And if you don’t, something is wrong.”
The NFL average for field-goal percentage this season is .870. Walsh has made 83.9 percent of his field-goal attempts (26 of 31) and 88 percent of his PATs (22 of 25). He made 17 field goals in a row, including a 36-yarder as time expired to beat the Bears in Chicago on Nov. 1 and a game-winning 40-yarder in overtime to beat the Rams a week later at home.
“Making a game-winning kick like that is kind of a crazy feeling,” Walsh said. “People talk about how kickers really aren’t football players and we’re not that involved in the game. But you look at all these scenarios and we are directly involved. And it’s always nice when teammates mob you and your coach is hugging you in the middle of the field.”
And yet you’re as likely to hear people talking about what’s wrong with Walsh. He’s 5-for-8 since that 17-kick streak. Never mind that the misses were wide left from 51, wide right from 53 and a blocked 39-yarder.
Sunday, Walsh’s counterpart, Chicago’s Robbie Gould, comes to TCF Bank Stadium in the worst slump of his 11-year career. The ninth-most accurate kicker in NFL history (85.1) started the year with 17 makes, but is riding a costly stretch of three consecutive misses. The Bears lost in overtime to San Francisco at home two weeks ago after Gould missed a 36-yarder as time expired in regulation. Then they lost again at home to Washington when Gould missed what would have been a game-tying 50-yarder in the closing minutes.
“Robbie is one of the all-time greats; I wouldn’t bet against him,” Walsh said. “That field in Chicago is the worst field in the league. Every year, you go there and you almost have to change your form because whatever you’re doing on turf or manicured grass, you can’t do in Chicago because it’s 1½ inches thicker and it’s moving and it’s soft. It’s a nightmare. But it kind of goes back to this being the era we’re in and how you’re just expected to make everything.”
Walsh has made 20 of 29 career field-goal attempts from 50 yards and longer, including a 54-yarder in the fourth quarter at Arizona last Thursday. He was hoping for the chance to make what he said would have been a 49-yard attempt to tie the score as time expired in regulation.
“I had a lot of positive thoughts going,” Walsh said. “I kind of love those situations. We’ve had a lot of them and I wanted it. We were going in the same direction on the same hash where I made the 54-yarder.”
But the game ended when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fumbled the ball away on a sack.
“I was ready to go,” Walsh said. “But it didn’t come my way. It happens. I’ll just be ready to make it the next time.”