Gary Zauner, 61, who coached kickers in the NFL for three teams from 1994 to 2006, says, "There's been a transformation in the athletic ability of kickers and punters, and I credit the growth of soccer for a lot of that. You get better athletes learning to kick the football."
Zuerlein fits this model. He was a midfielder on a select youth soccer team in Lincoln when he tried out for the school's football squad and became the varsity kicker as a freshman. There he booted a 54-yarder, the degree of impressiveness of which is debatable. Since Dempsey's kick there have been at least 33 field goals longer than 63 yards by high school and college players, including a 67-yarder last week that made Central Valley (Washington) High senior Austin Rehkow a national celebrity. High school kickers often use tees to elevate the ball while it's held (Rehkow did not), but there are numerous other mitigating factors, most notably softer footballs. Since 1999, NFL kickers have used designated kicking balls (or K-balls), which equipment managers can knead only minimally before they are put into play. Additionally, NFL and college goalposts are 18'6" wide; high school's are 23'4" apart. (On the flip side, high school hash marks are 53'4" apart; college hashes are 40 feet apart; and the NFL's are the same 18'6" as the goalposts. "Actually, from a pure kicking standpoint, it's a little easier in the NFL than college," says Zuerlein, "because if you kick it straight, it's going through.")
There's no doubt, though, that most NFL kickers could make a 64-yard field goal. Not only have kickers improved, but so has what Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff calls the "operation" of snap-hold-kick, which he says is "more efficient than ever."
Still, such chances remain rare because coaches are loath to risk giving an opponent the ball on the plus side of midfield. "Field position and strategy" are the major impediments to 64, says Westhoff. "You can't [afford to] miss from that far." Hence, almost all kicks from 63 and beyond will come at the end of the first half or in a game-winning or game-tying situation, of which there are only so many.
After Akers's 63, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh was asked whether he would be more willing to kick long during the run of the game. He looked as if he'd been fed straight lemon juice. "I'd have to see a lot more good data on that," he said. (It's noteworthy that Rams coach Jeff Fisher allowed Zuerlein to kick both his 60- and his 58-yarder during the run of play, though there is no indication that other coaches will follow suit.)
Andersen is thinking back on a 60-yarder he connected on at the Superdome in 1991. "It went halfway up the net, would have been good from 68 or 70," he says. "It sounded like a cannon." But in his long career, he never got to try from even 64. "At most," guesses Andersen, "any kicker might get a couple of chances in his entire career."
They all kick from longer than 63 in warmups, teasing fate. They all assume that soon the number will fall.
Still the record stands, endangered but alive.