“I’m sitting at 18,” he said in late November. “For the longest time, I was No. 2. I may have even hit No. 1 for a second. My 85.5 percent has been slowly dropping down the charts. As soon as these young guys hit 100 field goals, they qualify, and I just keep getting bumped down.”
On Sunday, Cleveland Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins made all three field goals he attempted and boosted his career percentage from 85.4 to 85.6. Graham dropped another spot, to 19th.
So it is for NFL field goal kicking in 2023: All-time performances occurring weekly, going largely unnoticed because of how routine they have become. Kickers have made 85.8 percent of field goal attempts this season, the second-highest leaguewide rate behind 2013, which would make the composite 2023 NFL kicker the 15th most accurate ever. By career percentage among kickers with 100 field goal attempts, 11 of the top 21 — including seven of the top 10 and the entire top five — are active. That doesn’t include Dallas rookie Brandon Aubrey, who has made all 26 field goals he has attempted, or second-year Chargers kicker Cameron Dicker, who has started his career 38 for 40.
What’s unique about kickers’ success this season is how frequently coaches have trusted them — with justification — from length. NFL teams have attempted 177 field goals of at least 50 yards, already the third-most ever and on pace to break the record set last year. Kickers have made 67.2 percent. Jan Stenerud, the first kicker elected to the Hall Fame, made 66.8 percent of his field goals — from all distances.
Jake Elliott delivered one of the signature moments of the season when he drilled a 59-yard field goal off wet turf, through wind and driving rain to push the Philadelphia Eagles into overtime against the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 26. The circumstances heightened Elliott’s kick, but he is hardly alone. Four kickers this season have made a field goal of at least 60 yards, and 11 have drilled at least one from at least 57.
“It’s scary,” said Jamie Kohl, who kicked at Iowa State in the late ’90s and owns Kohl’s Kicking Camps. “When I played, I could have never envisioned them getting this good.”
As it stands, Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo (90.1 percent) tops the all-time list for accuracy. But that’s only because Justin Tucker, widely regarded as the best kicker ever and a rare placekicking lock for Canton, hooked a 44-yarder left in the Ravens’ Week 12 victory over the Chargers, dropping his career percentage to 89.9.
“Unless I retire tomorrow, I don’t think it’s going to matter,” Koo said last week in a phone conversation. “I’m going to look at that number maybe when I’m done playing. But everyone is still playing.”
Koo’s place atop the all-time list is instructive. By black-and-white performance, he can stake a claim as an all-time great. He was also out of the league for two years after his rookie season. For NFL kickers, near perfection is a job requirement that affords scant security. The line between contention for best-ever and unemployment could be a handful of missed kicks over a few weeks.
Austin Seibert made 86.2 percent of his field goals as a rookie in 2019, after the Browns drafted him in the fifth round. The next season, he battled injuries and lost his job. He has tried to retake one of 32 positions ever since. This year, he has flown to five NFL facilities to work out, and last week the Saints signed him to their practice squad as rookie starter Blake Grupe nursed a small injury. Grupe turned out to be healthy enough to kick, and Seibert remains on the New Orleans practice squad, still waiting and hoping to join one of the most exclusive clubs in sports.
“I’ve told a couple of my buddies this,” Seibert said. “Kicking and punting has evolved quicker over the last 10 to 20 years than any position in sports. … You have guys setting the bar higher. In order to stay in this league, you have to figure out how to be better.”
‘Committed’ to kicking
NFL field goal kicking is at the endpoint of “generational improvement,” Graham said. Pete Gogolak changed placekicking in the ’60s when he introduced soccer-style kicking, replacing straight-on boots with the toe. A raft of European kickers who had played soccer followed him. “Kicking just kept getting a little bit better,” Graham said. “But no one really knew exactly what they were doing.” They started to figure it out. Techniques were honed and instruction continually improved.
“You’re just seeing a bigger, stronger, smarter athlete that’s been trained better, because there’s more people now to train and [they] have learned the lessons all these other guys have learned over the years,” Graham said.
Starting in Pop Warner, kickers can train with professional coaches, many of them former NFL kickers or college kickers who couldn’t break into the league. Kohl launched his business in 2000, after he spent a preseason with the Seahawks. “We were cutting-edge with a VHS camcorder and a projector,” he said. “That would be the only time people could see themselves on film. It was unbelievable if you could kind of slo-mo it.” Now, a kicker can film himself on an iPhone and send it to a coach for instant feedback.
Better athletes are drawn to kicking at earlier ages, coaches said. Kohl credited Adam Vinatieri’s dynasty-sparking string of clutch kicks for the Patriots — not to mention his indelible chase-down of Herschel Walker on a kickoff — as crucial to overturning the notion of “stupid kickers nobody cares about.” The stereotype of kicker as an oddity with a funny face mask has faded. Tucker has a signature celebration, Koo appears on the cover of the Falcons’ media guide, and Buffalo’s Tyler Bass wears eye black under just one eye.
“They’re cool dudes,” former NFL kicker John Carney said. “Most of them have tattoos.”
The effect, Kohl said, has been better athletes coming to his camps at earlier ages. They want to be, and don’t shy away from identifying as, kickers. “They’re seeing the success other people had,” Kohl said. “It made them choose instead of being a D-II receiver, I’m going to go kick at a big-time D-I school and put all my eggs in that basket. That’s maybe society as a whole — the specialization.”
“A number of kickers and punters in the NFL can run a 4.5 and 4.6 40, can bench 225 over 20 times, have vertical jumps of 38 inches-plus,” Carney, who runs the Carney Training Facility, said. “Those are pretty darn athletic specimens who could play a bunch of other positions in a bunch of other sports and have played other sports growing up. And now they’ve decided and committed themselves to the skill of kicking.”
Kickers study biomechanics and develop strength programs specific to their position. To generate power, a kicker needs strength and stability in his plant leg and mobility and explosiveness in his kicking leg. Kickers perform lifts and exercises meant to amplify that asymmetry.
“These young guys that are coming out, you got guys that look like bodybuilders,” Graham said. “You got guys that look like linebackers. You got guys out there that, even if they’re not that big, they’re very explosive, efficient athletes.
“You’re seeing kickers doing a lot more single-leg stuff, unilateral type lifting. … You’re creating strength within your body that’s more suited for kicking.”
Strength helps accuracy as much as distance. From near midfield, today’s kickers can stay within their typical technique. “The stronger you are physically, the less effort it takes for your longer kicks to go further,” Graham said. “You don’t need to have to swing harder. You’re just able to hit your normal ball, and it goes further.”
Seibert theorized that the NFL moving the extra point back in 2015, turning a 19-yard kick into a 33-yarder, raised the standard of quality and inadvertently helped kickers. By making them focus on every kick, it made them better. “You have to hit a good ball in order for that to go in,” Seibert said. “It allows us to find that consistency.”
As kickers have improved, so have the conditions they face. Advances in grass maintenance and the preponderance of field turf, a scourge in the eyes of position players who believe it increases the risk of injury, have given kickers pristine surfaces.
The ball itself, several experts believe, has become easier to kick. In 1999, the NFL instituted “K balls” — three balls per team that would be taken out of the box on game day to prevent teams from breaking them in — for special teams plays. In 2007, after Dallas Cowboys quarterback/holder Tony Romo dropped a slick football while holding and cost the Cowboys a likely playoff victory, the NFL changed the rule. Equipment managers could break in balls for 30 minutes in a room overseen by a league official, dubbed the “K ball coordinator.”
In 2020, the NFL enabled teams to prepare K balls in their locker rooms, away from league supervision. The league made no changes to what equipment managers could do to the ball, a league spokesman said. Koo, for one, said he saw no change in the balls he kicks. But many believe the procedural change resulted in teams being able to better break in footballs used for kicking.
“The product kickers are getting when the game starts is a better ball,” Carney said. “It’s just broken in better. It performs better.”
To Koo, the focus on and quality of the entire field goal operation has been crucial. Like kickers, long snappers in high school and college can grow up attending summer clinics and specialize early. Their precision extends beyond what most fans realize: Atlanta long snapper Liam McCullough holds the laces at a precise angle because he knows how many revolutions the ball will take as it travels into holder Bradley Pinion’s hands.
“Some snappers will hold the laces, some snappers will have laces in their palm or different places, depending on their rate of spin on the ball, so the laces will be out when the holder catches it, ” Koo said.
The precision allows Pinion to place the ball down without having to spin the laces out, helping him to focus on holding the ball at the angle Koo prefers, all in 1.3 seconds or less.
To gauge how much that process matters, consider what can happen when it’s disrupted. Tennessee Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse, who holds for kicker Nick Folk, was knocked out of Sunday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts with an injury. Backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill became the holder, and on his first try, he awkwardly placed the ball and spun the laces to the side. Folk hooked the extra point wide, only his second miss of the season on a field goal or extra point.
“The attention to detail on that end of it makes a huge difference,” Koo said. “Maybe back in the day, it was just an O-lineman snapping the ball or a backup quarterback holding the ball. Now, we get to work the details of it — the hold, the lean and everything — so that those mistakes don’t lead to possible missed kicks.”
One miss can mean the difference between an entire city celebrating or mourning — or between a kicker finding security and boarding a plane for another workout. Kickers such as Tucker and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Chris Boswell, Seibert said, have earned trust of their franchises. More than sheer skill, experience and success under pressure is what sets them apart.
“At some point, it’s not talent. It’s performance,” Kohl said. “I got a whole bunch of guys who come out to a pro combine in February and they’re watching the season from the couch. They’re looking at themselves in the mirror like, ‘I can kicker farther. I can kick higher.’ That may be true, but you can’t call it on in front of 75,000 people and millions watching on TV and do it 17 weekends in a row. That’s a gift in and of itself, too.”
Koo has been on both sides. He is a foundational player in Atlanta six years after the Chargers dispatched him. Nobody in NFL history has kicked field goals more accurately than he has. The craft has remained on an upward trajectory for decades, but how much better can it get?
“I can’t tell the future,” Koo said. “Everybody’s human, right? Fifty years from now, it’s not going to be 99 percent. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. It definitely raises the bar for everybody, for sure. It’s good when you have peers that are playing so well. It just pushes you to be better.”