Somewhere, probably on a soccer field in middle Europe, a young man with an unpronounceable name, a strong right leg and a firm conviction that all footballs are round, is preparing to become the most valuable player in the 1984 Super Bowl. In time, he will be discovered by a National Football League scouting party as he kicks soccer balls into orbit. He will be brought back to the U.S. and given a smattering of English, an introduction to our football and basic instruction on how to put on his helmet without shearing off his ears.
Eventually, late on a mid-January Sunday, our hero will kick a 68-yard field goal with 10 seconds to play to win the Super Bowl and spend the rest of the year selling slathers of rugs to his hometown fans. The final score will be five field goals to four—and not a touchdown will be scored the entire afternoon.
The scenario is not that farfetched. Pro football is already becoming a duller sport as the cautious strategy of the field goal—made possible by side-winding soccer booters and highly specialized homegrown kickers—has assumed, for a variety of reasons, disproportionate importance in the scheme of the game. Last year, for instance, there were 114 fewer touchdowns scored in the pros than there were six years ago. But there were 141 more field goals. In 1967 there were an average of 1.97 field goals per game. Midway through this season that figure is just above three—an increase of more than 50%.
The era of the field goal began, as nearly as one can put a date to such things, in 1966 when the NFL's New York Giants pirated Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian-born soccer-style kicker and perhaps the best field-goal artist of the day, from the Buffalo Bills of the AFL. The larceny precipitated full-scale raids by both leagues and, eventually, peace between them. It also signaled, quite clearly, the importance of the siege-gun kicker.
Only twice prior to 1961 had a kicker made as many as 20 field goals in one season. But over the last 12 years the leading pro field-goal kicker has always had 20 or more. Last season Chester Marcol, the Polish kicking specialist for the Green Bay Packers, hit 33, only one shy of the league record.
So far this season the trend has continued. Through Sunday 276 field goals were kicked compared with 259 last year. Obviously, there are more talented field-goal kickers around now—they hit on 61% last year; 10 years ago it was only 49%. But they are only symptomatic of what is happening to the game. They are not the cause.
The villain, as much as any other single factor, is the zone defense. The zone was first used extensively in the old AFL during its last days, when the established NFL had a virtual monopoly on top defensive backs. Unable to cover receivers man-to-man with the personnel at their disposal, the AFL coaches developed a defense that enabled overmatched defenders to choke off a long-range passing attack. By the time the leagues merged in 1970 and the former AFL teams had acquired defensive stars of their own, the advantages of the zone were clear to everybody—and good defenders operated it even more efficiently than the mediocre ones.
Cutting off the long pass as a viable weapon forced most clubs back to the short pass and the run. Fewer successful bombs meant fewer quick touchdowns. As attacking teams neared the goal line, defenses could mass, so that finally, almost as often as not within the 35-yard line, coaches began to settle for an almost certain three points rather than gamble on trying to prolong a drive that might or might not produce six.
In the last quarter of any reasonably close game today, the hometown fans are concerned not with whether their team can get a touchdown, but with whether it can move into field-goal range. A prime example came in the Oakland-Denver Monday night TV game last week. The Raiders, in a 20-20 tie, mounted a cautious offense that carried to the Denver 42 and, with 36 seconds left, elderly George Blanda kicked a 49-yard field goal. Denver responded with a rapid but equally cautious short-range offense designed not to win the game but to get its own field-goal kicker in range. The last two plays in this drive were runs intended simply to position the ball directly in front of the goalpost. Jim Turner's toe gave Denver its tie—a satisfying result for the home crowd, certainly. But at four other points earlier in the same game, drives that might have resulted in touchdowns were also settled out of court, as it were, for field goals. As three-pointers go, the final two were fairly exciting. But not one of the six field goals in the game could compare to an old-fashioned, go-for-broke try for a touchdown. Field goals cost too little and pay too much.
The fact that both Oakland and Denver had kickers capable of scoring from near midfield points up another reason why field goals have proliferated. In the old days, when clubs could carry only 33 players, the field-goal kicker kicked as a sideline. His principal job was to play another position. Lou Groza, who led the NFL in field goals for years, was a starting offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Bob Waterfield, who kicked field goals for the Rams when they won the championship in 1951, was their All-Pro quarterback.