The Evolution of the NFL Place-Kicker

Jan-Stenerud-kc-chiefs-kicker-hall-of-fame

Usually regarded as non-athletes, NFL placekickers nonetheless are absolutely critical to their team’s success. Since the sport is called “FOOTball,” the players who make their living booting an odd-shaped, inflated pigskin are frequently overlooked at best and taken for granted at worst. But their contributions to the most popular sport in the nation can’t be written off nor can they be compartmentalized as mere “specialists,” even though technically, that’s exactly what they are.

In the NFL’s early years, kickers were more often than not the team’s best athlete, and it wasn’t until the late 1940s that teams began to comprehend the importance of having an effective kicker, whether it was a punter or placekicker. The first recognized placekicking “specialist” was Ben Agajanian. Agajanian kicked in high school and then in college for New Mexico. While in college, Agajanian tragically lost four toes on his kicking foot in an accident but he persisted in kicking, doing it well enough to kick for ten different professional teams before retiring in 1964.

Agajanian’s success as a “kicker-only” didn’t convince the league as a whole to adopt the position, and kickers continued to play other positions. Notable players such as Lou Groza (OT), Lou Michaels (DE), Paul Hornung (RB), Frank Gifford (WR), Pat Summerall (WR) George Blanda (QB), Gino Cappelletti (WR) and Keith Lincoln (RB) were standouts at their “normal” positions in addition to handling kicking chores. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that teams began to employ full-time kicking specialists, with Blanda being the last kicker to also play at another position.

For decades, placekickers utilized the “straight-on” approach, kicking the ball with the toes. This technique elevated the ball quicker and higher, but that method was about to become archaic with the introduction of the soccer-style approach. In 1964, the Buffalo Bills of the AFL signed Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian-born Cornell graduate who booted with the instep of his foot after approaching the ball at an angle. This technique caused the football to come off the foot at a lower trajectory but produced dramatically longer kicks. To offset the lower elevation, teams began placing the holder’s position a few feet further back to avoid blocks. Gogolak’s impact was almost immediate, and other teams soon began scouring soccer clubs and foreign countries for potential candidates. Gogolak’s younger brother Charlie, who played collegiately at Princeton, became the first placekicker to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft when the Washington Redskins chose him in 1966, and by the end of the 1960s, soccer-style kickers were the norm rather than the exception. However, the straight-on placekickers had one final “moment” in 1970 when Tom Dempsey, a traditional kicker with the New Orleans Saints who was born without toes on his right (kicking) foot, booted an NFL-record 63-yard FG (since equalled by three other kickers). The last straight-on placekicker (to date) was Mark Moseley who retired after the 1986 season. Moseley is notable for being the only placekicker to be named the NFL’s MVP (1982), while with the Washington Redskins.

Another non-traditional kicking method emerged when Tony Franklin, who kicked barefooted, joined Philadelphia in 1979, going on to become one of the league’s most accurate kickers. Another successful barefooted kicker was Rich Karlis, who somehow managed to kick without a shoe for several seasons in the frequently frigid climate of Denver.

The NFL’s all-time record for the longest field goal (63 yards) is shared by four players: The already-mentioned Dempsey (1970), Jason Elam (1998), Sebastian Janikowski (2011) and David Akers (2012). Dempsey’s was the only FG that was a game-winner, while the other three all occurred at the end of the first half.

Despite the obvious importance of the placekicker, Jan Stenerud of the Kansas City Chiefs is the only full-time kicking specialist to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Blanda and Groza are also enshrined, but they were regulars at other positions. This is a bit puzzling since the NFL’s Top 25 career scorers are all placekickers. Perhaps this oversight is due to the misguided belief that these talented specialists are still considered to be “non-athletes.” This widely-held assumption is reflected in the NFL’s annual player draft, with only four kickers in the history of the draft to be selected in the first round (Gogolak, Washington 1966, Steve Little, St. Louis 1978, Russell Erxleben, New Orleans 1979 and Janikowski, Oakland 2000).

TOP FIVE SCORERS IN NFL HISTORY
1. Morten Andersen 2,544 points (1982-2007)
2. Gary Anderson 2,434 points (1982-2004)
3. Jason Hanson 2,150 points (1992-2012)
4. John Carney 2,062 points (1988-2010)
5. Matt Stover 2.004 points (1991-2009)

TOP FIVE ACTIVE SCORERS (Placekickers) IN THE NFL
1. Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis 1,966 points
2. David Akers, Detroit 1,706 points
3. Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland 1,464 points
4. Jay Feely, Arizona 1,397 points
5. Phil Dawson, San Francisco 1,356 points