Friday, July 20, 2018
Sports

Jones: The dirty trick the NFL played on kickers

Thirteen yards. That's all. Just 13 yards.

For a normal adult, that's 13 strides. A small child could throw a chicken nugget that far.

Yet those 13 yards are having a huge impact on the National Football League.

For decades, the line of scrimmage for an extra point was the 2-yard line. Kickers are so good that the extra point — the equivalent of a 20-yard field goal — became automatic.

So the NFL decided to make a change.

Just 13 yards.

The extra-point line of scrimmage was moved back, and that automatic extra point became a 33-yarder.

Not only are kickers having a harder time with extra points now, the change is impacting other kicks, too.

"It's absolutely messing with guys,'' said former longtime Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica. "It's in their heads.''

Let's start with the extra points.

In 2014, the last year of the old rule, only eight extra points were missed.

In 2015, the first year of the new rule, there were 71 misses. This season there have been 30. Of the 32 NFL teams, 20 have missed at least one extra point.

And the missed extra points alone are impacting games.

The best example came last season. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had never missed an extra point in nine years. His miss in last season's AFC Championship Game forced the Patriots to go for two after a touchdown in the waning seconds. They didn't convert, lost 20-18, and the Broncos went on to the Super Bowl.

But moving back the extra-point line also has had another impact, one that wasn't intended, yet might be more palpable than kicking extra points.

It's having an effect on all kicks.

"The extra point was always a way to get into a rhythm,'' Gramatica said.

In other words, it was like a practice swing in golf.

Even if a kicker didn't hit the ball on an extra-point try just right, the margin for error was so great that it was nearly impossible to miss it. (Thus, the 99.3 percent conversion rate in 2014.) It was a layup, a gimme putt, a batting-practice fastball.

"In the old days, if you weren't hitting the ball right, you could see where the ball was going by the extra point,'' Gramatica said. "You still would make it, but you then could correct whatever you were doing wrong.''

Extra points also helped confidence.

"I can remember not feeling good about things, but then I'd go out and knock through a couple of extra points,'' Gramatica said. "Then you would start to feel better again.''

Miss an extra point now and confidence can be shattered.

"It's like missing a 33-yard field goal, But no one looks at it like that," Gramatica said. "All they know is the kicker missed an extra point. You feel like you let the whole team down, and that can start to get into your head.''

Comparing field-goal-kicker percentages from one year to another can be tricky. Weather, distance and injury can influence a kicker's accuracy. And kicker percentages tend to do down as the season gets longer because the weather gets worse in northern cities.

But Gramatica knows this much: "I'm glad I never had to deal with (the extra-point change), and I bet most kickers wish they didn't have to deal with it now.''

What makes this topic so pertinent today is the kicking matchup between the Bucs and Bears.

The Bucs used a second-round draft pick this year in an attempt to fix their kicking woes and took Roberto Aguayo, now the poster child for kicking issues.

He has missed 2 of 17 extra points, and he's only 7-for-12 on field goals, including 2-for-5 on attempts between 40 and 49 yards.

And this is one of the best kickers in college history.

Meantime, the Bears' kicker is former Tampa Bay standout Connor Barth, who was released by the Bucs immediately after they took Aguayo. But Barth is having a much better season than Aguayo. He is perfect on 14 extra points and is 11-for-14 on field goals.

You just know today's game is going to come down to a kick. Maybe even an extra point.

"Everybody in this league can kick. Everybody has a good leg," Gramatica said. "When you miss, it's usually because of the mental part.''

All because of 13 yards.

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