Justin Tucker’s field goal record likely to stand for some time
When Tom Dempsey set a 63-yard field goal record for the Saints in 1970, it would have heralded a new era of long kicks. Instead, it was an anomaly, so much so that it took decades for another kicker to equal it.
It has taken 51 years to raise the record three yards high, as Ravens’ Justin Tucker did last week with a 66-yard field goal. It’s worth asking: Why do field goal records typically stand for so long, and why are they broken by such a small margin?
Dempsey’s kick, with two seconds remaining, won the game for Saints over the Lions at Tulane Stadium. It broke the previous record of 56 yards set by the Colts’ Bert Reicher in 1953—a defensive back attempting the first field goal of his career.
“Snap was perfect, the ball was perfectly placed – and I had the strength,” Dempsey said a day later. “I’m still stunned thinking about it today.”
Aside from that kick, Dempsey, who died last year of 73 complications from the coronavirus, is remembered for his shoes. He was born without toes on his right foot, and when kicking, he wore a custom shoe with a flattened toe surface.
The 63-yard passed in NFL lore and was unsurpassed for 43 years—20 years longer than Bob Beaman’s epic long jump at the 1968 Olympics, which has become synonymous with paradigm-shattering records.
In 1998, Jason Allum of the Broncos tied Dempsey’s record: one kick of 60 or more yards in the 1980s and two more in the 1990s.
But the new century brought bigger, stronger, more efficient kickers and an explosion of successful 60-plus yard kicks, 21 of them so far. In 2013, Matt Prater of the Broncos eventually broke Dempsey’s record with 64 yards.
On Sunday, Tucker went two yards better, booting a 66-yard field goal as time ran out. The ball hit the cross bar, jumped in the air and fell overhead to win the game for the Ravens.
In a small coincidence, both Dempsey and Tucker’s game winners came up against the Lions. In a big coincidence, both the games ended with 19-17 scores.
Tucker said after the game, “I really don’t have words to do it justice at the moment.”
The comparative attack of the successful long kick in recent decades can be attributed to kickers getting bigger and fitter and improvements in technique, starting with the switch to soccer-style kicking. Many stadiums are now also vaulted, reducing wind and weather constraints.
Nevertheless, the record has only increased by three yards – nine feet – since the 1970s. Why is it like this?
Teams don’t try them.
Not that field goals have fallen out of favor: The number of attempts per team has been flat over the past six decades. Field goal kickers have become much more accurate since 1970, reducing their 85 percent of kicks last season to just 59 percent. In theory, they should have the ability to kick much longer than they should.
But in order to kick a really long field goal, teams have to attempt a really long field goal, and such attempts are not routine. In the 2020 season, 168 field goals for 50 yards or more were attempted. Only 10 of them were 60 yards or more, and only three were 65 yards or more.
One reason is the condition of the area. If an attempt from midfield fails, the opponent gets the ball at the spot where the ball was seen. Even a bad punt, which results in a touchback, delivers the ball to the other team on its own 20.
It is no coincidence that Tucker’s kick coincided with the time running out and the play coming on the line. Consideration of field position means that you probably only want to attempt a very long kick because time is running out in half or in play. And if it’s the fourth quarter, there’s no point in trying a long field goal unless you’re within 3 points of your opponent. That combination of circumstances doesn’t come up many times in a season.
Hail Mary is a better bet.
The quarterback’s arms are improving as fast or faster than the kicker’s legs. A Hail Mary attempt can be as tempting to many coaches as a long kick. Teams began to treat long dice more scientifically, establishing special blocking schemes and analyzing opponents’ tendencies, rather than simply dodging the ball and praying.
Furthermore, Tucker’s 66-yard run barely made it over the bar. The Canadian Football League record is 62 yards, and the major college record without a kicking tee is 65. Kickers sometimes score more than 70 yard field goals in practice, but how long can a kicker actually last in a game?
Falling short can have dire consequences.
There is another drastic downside to trying really long field targets. Also on Sunday, the Cardinals’ Prater took a shot from 68 yards against the Jaguars as the first half ended. If he had made it, Tucker’s kick would have been later.
But Prater came short on a prodigious kick. And the thing is, you can return a field goal that comes up short. Jamal Agnew caught Prater’s short kick and drove it back 109 yards for a touchdown. A play in which the Cardinals had a smaller chance of getting 3 points gave the Jags a 6 instead.
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