Of course, predicting who's going to be a standout kicker and who's going to choke on a 33-yarder at RFK Stadium with four seconds remaining might be the toughest task in football. The most accurate field goal kicker in league history, Nick Lowery (.793) of the Kansas City Chiefs, had the door slammed in his face by the Jets, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Bucs, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Bengals, Redskins, Redskins again, New Orleans Saints, Chargers, Colts again and Jets again before catching on with K.C. in 1980. "It's impossible to measure what's inside someone," Lowery says, "and that's what keeps sports exciting. If every kicker made every kick at the end of every game, would fourth quarters be exciting anymore? You want to watch robots, go someplace else."
Case in point: Gary Anderson, who is 5'11", 179 pounds, was a soccer player in South Africa who moved to the U.S. as a youth. He has an accurate but not powerful leg. He developed his placekicking skills at Syracuse. He has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 10 years and ranks third alltime in field goal accuracy (.763). John Lee is 5'11", 180 pounds. He was a soccer and baseball player in South Korea who moved to the U.S. as a youngster. He had an accurate but not powerful leg. He sharpened his kicking skills at UCLA, and he was the St. Louis Cardinals' kicker for one season.
"The difference between Gary Anderson and John Lee is almost nothing," says Cleveland special teams player Ron Wolfley, a former Cardinal. "So why is Anderson one of the greatest of all time, and why is Lee a bust? Mental toughness. It's a clich�, but it's the absolute truth. The kicker is all alone—he misses it, he blew it. It might not be true, but that's what everybody thinks."
Steve Little and Lee are prime examples of why teams rarely take kickers high in the draft. George Boone, the former St. Louis personnel director, drafted Little in the first round in 1978 and Lee in the second round in '86. "A lot of people give lip service to the kicking game," says Boone. "We took kickers because we felt they were a crucial part of the game." But the Cardinals didn't know that Little was such a party animal and didn't take into account that Lee's kickoffs were weak and didn't realize that both players performed poorly in critical situations. In three seasons Little and Lee combined to make 21 of 40 field goals.
"You've got to be able to absorb some of the stuff that happens in pro football, the pressure and the criticism from the coaches," says Lee, who now sells real estate in Southern California. "I guess I wasn't mature enough then. It just ate away at me, and I couldn't wait to be cut."
Boone says he still has no regrets about having spent high draft choices on Little and Lee, but he did learn something about kickers. "Football players are drummers," Boone says. "Kickers are violinists."
In 26 games between September 1985 and October 1986, including the preseason, regular season and postseason, the Giants used kickers Ali Haji-Sheikh, Jess Atkinson, Eric Schubert, Haji-Sheikh, Bob Thomas, Haji-Sheikh, Thomas, Joe Cooper and Raul Allegre. Haji-Sheikh was injured three times in one calendar year ('86) in games against the Packers. "If I played Green Bay every week," the Sheikh said at the time, "I'd need to buy an ICU wing in a hospital."
Equally sad was the case of Thomas, who swung his right leg, hit a chunk of upraised turf and sprained his ankle during a practice in his first week with the team. Giant coach Bill Parcells, shaking his head incredulously, said, "Kickers don't get hurt. They're kickers, for crying out loud! How can kickers get hurt? All they do is kick!"
Allegre also bruised easily. He thought the Giants' practice regimen for kickers was excessive, and he regularly complained about aches and pains. Some Giant officials took to calling him Porcelain Groin. Still, the Giants won the Super Bowl after the '86 season. Sometimes the steadiest kickers can come unglued. From 1986 through '89 the Seattle Seahawks' Norm Johnson missed a total of seven field goals from between 30 and 39 yards. But in '90 he missed six from that distance, and Seahawk fans buried him. "It gets to the point, when you miss a couple, where you feel like the salaries of your teammates are on your back and your back's against the wall," says Johnson, who went to two sports psychologists during the '90 season. "You can't think negatively. It'll kill you."
But last season, after having been cut by Seattle and signed by the Atlanta Falcons, he had his best kicking season (83% field goal accuracy) in seven years, including a perfect 13 for 13 inside the 40. What's more, Johnson, who as a member of the Seahawks kicked in the Kingdome, had his career year for a Falcon team that played 15 of its 16 regular-season games outdoors. His theory: When a kicker starts going bad and the negative feedback begins to steamroll, he gets caught in a no-win mind game, and he has to change teams.