Kick in the head
Redskins poster team for ailing kicking games
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Moments after 44-year-old Eddie Murray trudged dejectedly from the field Sunday, the Washington kicker issued what has become the most familiar refrain of the Redskins' star-crossed season:
"I gave it my best shot," said Murray, after missing a game-winning 49-yard field goal attempt against the New York Giants. "I thought I hit it well enough to get there. We'll wait and see tomorrow if I'll still be here."
Somewhat surprisingly, Murray, one of five kickers to have donned Redskins colors this season, was still employed come Tuesday morning. The same could not be said for Washington head coach Norv Turner and Redskins special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel, both of whom were summarily dismissed Monday with a wave of owner Daniel Snyder's hand.
If you have ever questioned how much of a season-altering difference even a single field goal can make in the NFL these days, there is no better example than Washington's 9-7 loss to the visiting Giants. In plain, unvarnished reality, Murray's miss sent New York (9-4) closer toward a playoff berth, and sent Turner and McDaniel home for the holidays.
In all likelihood, Washington (7-6), with its absurdly inflated $100 million payroll, will miss the playoffs because of shaky production from the guy who usually wears the lowest number on the roster. It doesn't take much of an argument to make the case that Turner lost his job this week because the Redskins' most recent three losses have all been by three points or less:
"The margin of error is so minimal in the league right now that you're always looking at the kicker," Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay said. "It's so slight. Kicking has become so important around the league because it so often decides who wins and loses."
To wit: Fifty of the league's 203 games thus far this season, or about 1-in-4, have been decided by a field goal or less. San Diego (1-12) and Tennessee (10-3) have each played seven such nail-biters, with obviously very different results. Pittsburgh (7-6), Philadelphia (9-5) and Washington are next with six, and Oakland (10-3) and Buffalo (7-6) have been involved in five each.
Games decided by a foot here or there
A lot of those trends converged Sunday, when the Redskins lost to the Giants on Murray's misses, the Titans got a career-best five Al Del Greco field goals, including a game-winning 50-yarder at the gun to nip the Eagles 15-13, and the Steelers upset the Raiders 21-20, with Oakland rookie kicker Sebastian Janikowski inaccurate on a 44-yard attempt.
About 25 percent of the league's games being decided by three points or less is not abnormal. Last season the average was 25.8 percent (64-of-248), and that figure has been between 20.8 percent and 27.9 percent every year but one since 1988. But the volatility of the NFL's kicking environment has rarely been greater.
The Redskins' season-long revolving-door kicking situation qualifies as ground zero in that regard. Including Scott Bentley, who along with Murray was signed Nov. 8 to exclusively handle kickoff duties, Washington has carried five different kickers on its roster in 2000.
That made the Redskins one of at least four teams this season to burn a roster spot on a kickoff specialist, joining Jacksonville, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Other teams, like Minnesota, use a punter for kickoff purposes, but haven't devoted a separate roster position to the role. League-wide, touchbacks are significantly down, with 86.8 percent of all kickoffs being returned, the second-highest total since 1980.
"It's a constant struggle with the roster dilemma of having to decide what you're going to live with, either one or two kickers," McKay said. "You have to make that choice and be willing to give up something on kickoffs sometimes if you choose to carry just one."
Washington has been far from alone in its instability. Nine different teams (29 percent of the 31-team league) have had at least two kickers score points for them this season. And that number doesn't even include Dallas, which has made due with rookie Tim Seder this season, but almost perennially changes kickers, opting for young legs for salary cap reasons.
By comparison, just six teams used two or more kickers last season, with only Chicago's merry-go-round experience (four kickers) rivaling Washington's 2000 contingent.
Round up the usual suspects
This year, replacement foot soldiers have been all the rage.
Take a deep breath and plunge into the roll call: Carolina, which lost standout kicker Jon Casey to injury in the preseason, has tried Richie Cunningham and Joe Nedney. In Denver, with incumbent Jason Elam hurting a good bit of the season, both Nedney and Steve Lindsey have taken a turn. Jacksonville had Lindsey as a kickoff specialist last season, then had him fill in for both punter Brian Barker and kicker Mike Hollis at various points this year.
Kansas City dumped longtime kicker Pete Stoyanovich in mid-October, opting for ex-Seattle veteran Todd Peterson. The New York Giants brought in Jaret Holmes to replace the injured Brad Daluiso for two games and have kept him on the roster. Stoyanovich and Jeff Hall have helped St. Louis get by while Jeff Wilkins nursed an injury, and Seattle has enlisted Kris Heppner and Ryan Lindell after cutting Peterson at the end of preseason for financial reasons.
For the record, Washington has gone through the likes of Brett Conway, Michael Husted, Heppner, and now Murray, with Bentley on kickoffs. The Redskins have also tried out probably a half-dozen other candidates, including Nedney, who they are still, ahem, kicking themselves for not signing.
And then there's Oakland, of course. The Raiders last year missed 13 field goals (using both Husted and Nedney) and went 4-6 in games decided by six points or less. That statistic drove head coach Jon Gruden to distraction, so much so that he made the controversial Janikowski the first kicker selected in the first round since New Orleans took Texas' Russell Erxleben in 1979 (with disastrous results).
Janikowski started off shakily this season, rebounded, missed a couple games with a foot problem, and is now back in the lineup. Punter Shane Lechler and Conway both pinch-hit for Janikowski for a game.
Some within the league believe the state of efficient kicking has been reduced by the disappearance of some turf fields in favor of grass, and by virtue of their being fewer domes (Seattle's Kingdome and Houston's Astrodome are now off the league's map).
But as widespread as it has been, the frequency of roster movement doesn't even fully reflect the tenuous nature of a kicker's job security in the NFL. Even veterans like Atlanta's Morten Andersen and Tennessee's Del Greco, two of the most reliable kickers in NFL history, have had their jobs placed in jeopardy at times this season.
And after all, what does it say about the state of NFL kicking that Murray, who is 44, has retired twice before, and sat out all or parts of every season since 1996, can keep landing late-season roster spots in the first place?
"I'll tell you why there's a bunch of kickers being used, it's the salary cap, baby. The salary cap," said Minnesota Vikings special teams coach Gary Zauner, who is regarded as one of the league's foremost kicking specialists. "The teams that have the biggest salary numbers, like a Washington, have to scrimp on the punter and the kicker. That's the first place teams look to save money these days, that and the long-snapper.
"I see it as primarily a financial reality in the salary-cap era. If you have to save money on snappers, punters and kickers, that affects the quality of the snapping, the holding and the field goal kicking. I think there's more teams right now having kicking problems than I can remember any time recently."