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Kick Start
Peter King
October 18, 1993
With placekickers deadlier and defenses stingier, NFL games are becoming field goal duels
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October 18, 1993

Kick Start

With placekickers deadlier and defenses stingier, NFL games are becoming field goal duels

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THE NATIONAL FIELD GOAL LEAGUE

You have to go back to 1938 to find the last NFL season in which the average game produced less than a touchdown per quarter, but the league is running close to 1938's anemic showing this season, averaging one touchdown per quarter across the schedule. And in no season in the league's history has the average game produced more than three field goals. But if things proceed apace, that will happen in '93. The shift in scoring is documented here at five-year intervals:

YEAR

TD

FG

TD-FG RATIO

1933

2.54

0.63

4.03-1

1938

3.60

0.75

4.83-1

1943

5.45

0.40

13.63-1

1948

6.37

0.75

8.49-1

1953

5.51

1.50

3.68-1

1958

5.78

1.65

3.50-1

1963

5.61

1.86

3.01-1

1968

5.05

2.31

2.18-1

1973

4.28

2.98

1.43-1

1978

4.45

1.91

2.33-1

1983

5.20

2.46

2.11-1

1988

4.69

2.55

1.84-1

1993

4.00

3.20

1.25-1

On Oct. 3 New Orleans Saint quarterback Wade Wilson found himself at the Los Angeles Ram 30-yard line, peering into a seven-defensive-back alignment. Wilson threw the ball toward wideout Patrick Newman at the goal line, and three defenders converged on the spot where the ball and Newman would meet. Any of the three could have made the play, and sure enough, one of the Rams tipped the ball away—right into Newman's hands, for a touchdown.

The play illuminated an important truth about this season: Once you get your offense within field goal range, you have to be awfully lucky to score a touchdown, particularly in the air. Field goal kickers have gotten to be so accurate that defenses are all but conceding the three points once they find themselves backed up to their own 20-yard line. Onto the field trot as many as seven defensive backs who take up positions in zones that are virtually impenetrable. The result is that fans are seeing a brand of football as unsatisfying as nouvelle cuisine at a postseason awards banquet.

Consider that in 224 games played in the NFL in 1989, only once did a winning team fail to score a touchdown. In the first three weekends of this season the San Diego Chargers won two games without scoring a touchdown, 18-13 over the Seattle Seahawks and 18-17 over the Houston Oilers; in the first month four other games were won by teams that did not make it into the end zone. Only once before in the league's history have there been more than six no-TD wins in a season (in '88 there were nine such games), and the '93 season is not even two months old. On Sunday six field goals were kicked in the Kansas City Chiefs' 17-15 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and the only touchdown scored in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 16-3 yawner over the Chargers was on a fumble recovery.

Over the past 30 years the ratio of touchdowns to field goals in the NFL has gone from 3 to 1 to just over 1 to 1. The league is on a pace to average more than three field goals a game this season—which would be a first—as kickers become increasingly unerring: Through the season's first six weeks field goal kickers were converting 80% of their attempts. More significant, the number of touchdowns scored from within the red zone (inside the 20) has declined by 8% since 1988, while field goals in the red zone are up more than 11%.

Even if it means that football is finally living up to its name, the emergence of the field goal as the dominant offensive weapon strikes some observers as bad for the game. Steps should be taken, it is argued, to give some of the edge back to the offense so that touchdowns inside the red zone don't become even more of an endangered species than they are already. One suggestion: Ban zone defenses inside the 20. "That's stupid," Indianapolis offensive tackle Will Wolford says. "How would you enforce that? Officials have enough to look for already. Anyway, what you're seeing is a fluky trend that I think is going to go away."

Wolford's view is widely shared around the league. Last week SI arranged a conference call in which five players were asked to muse on the field goal explosion and the touchdown drought. Kansas City Chief kicker Nick Lowery, Buffalo Bill quarterback Jim Kelly and New York Jet safety Ronnie Lott joined in from their homes. Dallas Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin joined in from his agent's office. San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young contributed his thoughts—this is the '90s, folks—via car phone, while driving down U.S. 101. Their unanimous conclusion: Leave the game alone because, over time, it will regulate itself.

SI: Isn't it true that the red zone is becoming the dead zone for the offense?

IRVIN: Hey, it's not just the red zone. It's all over the field. Defenses are just sitting back and saying, "Don't give up the big play. Don't make the big mistake. Don't let the wideout get behind you."

YOUNG: It's not the dead zone to us. I don't care how they play defense in the red zone. We've actually seen two-man rushes and nine men drop back, but our offensive philosophy—and I guarantee you it won't change—is that we're going to attack. We're seeing what I call the four-across: four defensive backs deep, spread across the field. Every team has done that to us. But we've scored 125 points. I don't think that's much less than we've had through five games in the past.

KELLY: I've noticed that teams are forcing opponents to score with the run, not with the pass, because of all the deep zones. If you can't run the ball near the goal line now, you're in big trouble.

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