ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Matt Prater stood on the doorstep of history, trying to find some calm. He could see his breath pushing through the face mask of his helmet on a day that was meat-locker cold, moments from attempting something that had never been done before in an NFL game.
On Dec. 8, 2013, in what eventually turned into a 23-point win over the Tennessee Titans, the Denver Broncos kicker was about to try to send a frozen, football-shaped cinder block with laces over a crossbar 10 feet above the ground, some 195 feet away, through the thin Denver air. Only thing was, a record wasn’t really on his mind until just before the play.
“I honestly didn’t know it was for the record at first, at least until we got on the field, and Britton Colquitt was our holder and we went out to get the spot. And Britton, who really never cusses, kneels down, then he looks up at me and all of a sudden says, just before the snap, ‘Holy s—, this is for the record!'” said Prater, who now kicks for the Arizona Cardinals. “I say to him, ‘Why the hell would you say that to me right now?’ Then the snap came and I basically just swung for the fences and hoped it went straight, and it did.”
It took 43 years and 30 days for Prater to break the most coveted record in NFL kicking history. Tom Dempsey — with his oh-so-famous modified half-shoe that now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — powered a 63-yard field goal through the uprights on Nov. 8, 1970. Three others (Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers) had tied the record before Prater reset it at 64 yards in 2013.
It then took Baltimore Ravens All-Pro Justin Tucker just seven years and seven months to move the record not one but two yards, as Tucker crushed a 66-yard field goal Sunday on the final play of a Ravens’ 19-16 win over the Detroit Lions in the climate-controlled comfort of Ford Field. The kick had just enough length, bouncing off the cross bar before landing on the other side. Tucker had made a 61-yarder in Detroit eight seasons before and joked in an interview after Sunday’s game, “I’m thinking about getting a place here.”
Prater had said in recent weeks it was a matter of when, not if, someone would surpass his 64-yard kick. He wasn’t alone in that belief.
“We are just in a place when the records, at least the next one or two times, might come a little quicker,” Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus said, making the prediction just after the start of the regular season. “Because I just think the group of guys who can make those kicks is bigger now. And more kickers who can make the kick in the first place means more opportunity, but if it goes out one, two, three more yards, that group might get a little smaller each time. But there are guys who have trained, worked and made 70-yard kicks in practice, so if circumstances are right, who knows.”
Tucker’s kick came on the same day that Prater attempted a 68-yarder, though that kick fell short and was returned 109 yards for a touchdown, showing the risk-reward sides of a big kick. But the day’s events also showed what McManus had predicted: that kickers are bigger and stronger, are better trained and have better specialists working with them than ever before.
Kickers have simply become more accurate — Tucker is now 16-of-16 on kicks in the final minute of regulation in his career — and the kicking record might still have room to grow. But pushing the record past Tucker’s 66-yarder will take a mix of coaching boldness, kicking talent, a little luck and a huge dash of circumstance.
Evolution of the kicker
McManus, with seven games of multiple 50-yard field goals, says there is a list of “maybe six or seven guys” who could, if given the chance, make a record kick in game conditions. ESPN surveyed players and coaches connected to the league and came up with its own list (in alphabetical order): the New York Jets‘ Matt Ammendola, Buffalo Bills‘ Tyler Bass, Kansas City Chiefs‘ Harrison Butker, Denver Broncos‘ McManus, Seattle Seahawks‘ Jason Myers, Arizona Cardinals‘ Prater, Baltimore Ravens‘ Tucker and Los Angeles Chargers‘ Tristan Vizcaino.
These are “the big hitters,” as McManus calls them, and Tucker was one of the first names he provided. McManus, who had a 70-yard attempt blocked during the 2020 regular-season finale, includes himself in that group. But the list is far bigger than it was even eight years ago when Prater made his then-record kick, because long-snappers are exponentially better, kickers spend far more time on their techniques and the guys playing the position have far more resources in terms of coaching as well as facilities to work on their craft.
“For sure, the guys are getting better and better; guys are not only getting stronger, from even when I first came in the league, they’re getting more accurate,” Prater said. “When I first came in, if you were in the low 80s [percentage], you were having a good season, and now if you’re in the low 80s, they’re looking for your replacement.”
As an example, Morten Andersen — one of two full-time kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer. He is now 64th all time in terms of accuracy (79.69% over his 25-year career) and didn’t make a kick longer than 53 yards in the last eight years of his two-decade career.
The other full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, with a cavalcade of position players snapping to him on fields far less groomed than today’s kickers, is now 112th all time in accuracy (66.84%). Coaches were far less inclined to try for the kicking home run as well, given Stenerud had the opportunity to even attempt a kick at least 50 yards long 15 times over the last nine years of his career.
McManus attempted 15 kicks of at least 50 yards in 2020 alone.
And of the top 20 most accurate kickers in league history, Mike Vanderjagt — No. 7 all time at 84.67% success rate — is the only kicker among those 20 to have kicked in a game before 2000. He was a rookie in 1998.
“There was a time, not all that long ago, where the guys with the 70-, 80-yard legs were simply kickoff specialists because they didn’t have the accuracy component,” said Nick Novak, who kicked for five teams over a 10-year career and now works with many NFL kickers in the offseason. “That’s no longer the case; the big-leg guys have the power and now they have the accuracy. They’re taller for the most part — they have the lever for it. I mean, Prater made that 64-yarder by a good 5 yards, probably.”
Novak said many kickers, including most he has worked with, are now using technology and equipment that golfers have used, including TrackMan and other swing apps. They use them to fine-tune their leg swings, looking to find a little more distance as they try to maintain the accuracy that will allow them to keep their jobs.
“We’re splitting hairs now,” Novak said. “Little movements, tweaks, the level of detail, the level of effort now being done to produce that repeatable, most efficient swing. It’s not just about making the kick now — they’re just better at every part of the process.”
It’s not all about the kicker. Some of the intangibles have improved while others have not.
Today, long-snappers are specialists, but that hasn’t always been the case. Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, who started a season’s worth of games at all five spots in the offensive line during his decorated career, was often the Oilers’ long-snapper as well. A more recent example would be former Detroit Lions linebacker Allen Aldridge, who started 104 games on defense during his career and also often snapped on punts until his career ended in 2001.
Then there is the matter of the ball. Balls put into play on offense have been handled by teams’ equipment staff and then checked by officiating crews just before games, so at least some of the shine can be worked off. The kicking balls, used for kicks and punts, are, as McManus said “right out of the box when we kick them.”
“And that’s something the kickers have always talked about: The kicking ball doesn’t come out of the box until 45 minutes before games,” he added. “A quarterback knows for the most part what that ball is going to feel like; he’s thrown it before he throws it in a game. We have no idea. We’ve never kicked it before we kick it.”
The biggest impediment to “the big kick,” as Prater calls it, is the massive penalty for a miss — big enough to deter coaches from sending the kicker out to try it until there are no other options. Situations like the kick-six in Sunday’s Cardinals-Jaguars game are one outcome, albeit quite rare. But given the ball was placed, in Tucker’s case, at the Ravens’ 44-yard line, a miss immediately puts the opponent, at minimum, in field goal range, which largely eliminates most attempts when the game is not on the line.
“Because if you’re not in an end-of-game situation, now a 45-yarder going the other way, even if they go three-and-out, is a kick most teams are going to feel like their kicker can make without much of a problem,” McManus said. “So, strategically, it’s not wise unless it’s certain situations in a game, because if you do miss, it’s immediately a problem. You’re not going to do it unless it’s really needed — end of half, end of games.”
Janikowski is believed to have attempted the longest field goal in a game, a 76-yarder on the last play of the first half in a Raiders loss to the Chargers in Week 4 of the 2008 season, and Mark Moseley attempted a 74-yarder in Week 13 of the 1979 season.
In all, it is believed there have been attempts of at least 70 yards seven times in NFL regular-season games (Moseley had two of them); six came up short and McManus’ attempt was blocked. Since 2001, there have been 21 attempts at a field goal 65 yards or longer, with only Tucker on Sunday finding success.
A lot has to go right to convert a kick of record length. It’s about having the strength, the power and the timing to get a snapped football put down by a holder and have it go farther than any NFL player has ever kicked it, all while clearing the defenders’ outstretched arms. Often, it comes with the game in the balance, which means there are limited opportunities.
“I wish there was a moment in a game when they could just go for it and it was a four-point play or something,” Novak said. “But it’s going to happen when the situation calls for it because the list of the guys who can do it has enough kickers on it to increase the odds, and that list might even be growing.”
“I’ve had a couple situations where I had the opportunity, I’ve gotten too excited about the opportunity, so I’ve kicked them low and they’ve been blocked,” McManus said. “And I know I have the ability to kick them super high and still hit from 65, 70 yards. I’ve done it in practice — all the big hitters have done it in practice, maybe many times in training camp. Every kick you have to calm yourself down, but on those longer ones you know that you can do, you’ve been trying to do, trust your routine. That’s the balance.”
Everything came together for Tucker, who said, “I’d like to think that this one is going to be tough to break.” But others will continue to try.
“At the end of the day, it’s still two yellow posts in the same spot, and the degree of difficulty just goes up the more you move back,” McManus said. “It’s part of the football physics you have to solve. And somebody will solve it.”
ESPN Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this story.
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