Tag Archives: kickers

A soccer-style kicker for the Giants in 1953!

It’s pretty well established who the first soccer-style kicker was in pro football: Pete Gogolak with the AFL’s Bills in 1964. You can look it up. In Week 1 that year against the Chiefs, he made all six of his boots – two field goals, four extra points – in a 34-17 Buffalo win.

After that, the deluge. Soccer-stylers started descending on the pro game from all directions . . . and all hemispheres. If you didn’t have one kicking for you by the end of the ’70s, you were swimming against a tsunami-sized tide.

Paul Douglass during his brief NFL trial.

Paul Douglass during his brief NFL trial.

I didn’t realize until just the other day, though, that another sidewinder — as they were called — had auditioned in the NFL 11 years earlier. His name was Paul Douglass, and he went to training camp with the Giants, who’d taken him in the 13th round of the 1951 draft. Is Douglass the first soccer-style kicker to don an NFL uniform, even if it was only in the preseason? As far as I know, yes. And trust me, I’ve done a lot of digging.

Douglass had been a standout at Illinois as a defensive back and occasional kickoff man. The latter skill, according to the school newspaper, was the byproduct of being of “being one of the better soccer players from the St. Louis area.” After graduating from college, he spent two years in the Air Force during the Korean War — growing to 6-foot-2, 188 pounds — before giving the pro game a shot.

In preparation for camp, Douglass, who didn’t play football in the service, worked hard to get his leg back in shape. Or as the Daily Illini put it:

Almost any late afternoon if you drive past Fairground Park down St. Louis way you’ll see a lone figure standing among a group of small boys.

Closer inspection will reveal it to be Paul Douglass, former University of Illinois star, who will join the New York Giants professional football team next month. The kids [are] just fans who serve as his retrievers when Paul is practicing kickoffs. . . .

The Giants signed Douglass . . . chiefly to help bolster their depleted defensive ranks, but Paul hopes to solidify his position with his kicking ability.

That was the thing about the NFL in 1953. With only 33 roster spots up for grabs, versatility was a necessity for most players. The more you could do, the better your chances of making the squad. Plenty of guys, after all, were still playing both ways — including Giants legend Frank Gifford. (Or as the team’s media guide called him, “Francis.”) Gifford scored five different ways that season (2 rushing touchdowns, 4 receiving TDs, 1 interception-return TD, 1 field goal, 2 extra points) and threw a touchdown pass.

Douglass struck an unusual deal with the Giants. “Besides his [regular pay],” the Daily Illini said, he “will get $10 for every kick that goes out of the end zone, $5 for every one that goes in the end zone, and he has to pay the Giants $5 for every kick that doesn’t go that far.” It might have been the first time a player promised a club a rebate if he didn’t reach a particular performance goal.

Both The New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle ran a United Press story about Douglass and his unconventional style. Besides being able to boom the ball, he had an assortment of trick kicks that were hard for a returner to catch. “I don’t kick the ball with my toe,” he was quoted as saying. “I slice the ball with the side of my shoe.”

His repertoire, the Giants’ media guide said, included “a slider, which breaks to one side; a knuckler, which shimmies in the air and then falls erratically; and a ‘squeegee,’” which sounds like a squib kick. He learned the last one “from an English soccer star,” the wire service reported. It was a low-liner of a boot that “will bounce in at least three different directions before it loses action on a muddy field.”

There’s no telling how many times Douglass kicked off in the 1953 preseason. Game stories simply weren’t that detailed. But we know he kicked off at least once — against the Baltimore Colts in a game played in his hometown of St. Louis. The Baltimore Sun described it thusly: “Douglass’ kickoff to start the game sailed over the Colts’ end zone.” That’s 70 yards in the air, folks — if not more.

But again, there was no way he was going to make the club just as a kicker. Kicking specialists were rare in those days, and kickoff specialists were unheard of. No, he had to be one Giants’ best defensive backs to survive the final cut. And truth be known, he did have his moments as a DB.

The interceptor was Douglass.

The interceptor was Douglass.

The biggest came in the fourth quarter against the Bears, when he picked off a George Blanda pass to set up the winning score in a 14-7 victory. The ball “rolled off Jim Dooley’s fingertips and into [Douglass’] arms,” the Chicago Tribune’s George Strickler wrote, “and the rookie from Illinois raced 46 yards up the field before he was overhauled by [Hall of Famer George] Connor.”

In the end, Owen decided to cut Douglass and let Gifford and second-year man Randy Clay share the kicking. The season turned out to be a 3-9 disaster for the Giants, one that cost Stout Steve his job after 23 years of meritorious service.

And so Douglass’ contribution to pro football history has been lost, buried beneath the clouds of dust generated by the Giants offense that season. (They averaged a feeble 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, by far the fewest in the league.)

Unless, of course, the NFL had a soccer-styler even further back. Rest assured I’ll keep looking. As impactful as kickers are nowadays, we’ve gotta make sure we have this Famous First nailed down.

From the Giants' 1953 media guide.

From the Giants’ 1953 media guide.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Related content: Remembering Garo Yepremian.

Remembering Garo Yepremian

Garabed Sarko Yepremian was a grand old name. Not as melodious, perhaps, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, but resonant in its own Old World way. Alas, Garo is gone — struck down by cancer at 70 — and his death raises a question: Will pro football ever see a story like his again?

By that I mean: Will there ever be another player who plays in the first NFL game he’s ever seen — and sets a league record in his fifth?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the beginning?

Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times jokester, thought Yepremian should, by all rights, have hailed from Ypsilanti (Mich.) Garo’s background was much more unusual than that, though. Born in Cyprus, he’d fled with his family to London in the ’60s when the bullets began flying between the Turks and Greeks. (His Armenian ancestors had escaped to the Mediterranean island decades earlier, seeking refuge from Turkey’s genocidal lunacy.)

Yepremian might have spent the rest of his life in the U.K. — been an Un Known, in other words — if his older brother Krikor hadn’t come to this country to play college soccer. In the summer of 1966, Garo went to visit him in Indianapolis, and for fun they’d head to a nearby field with a football. Krikor would hold, and Garo, a weekend soccer player back home, would kick.

Little Brother got so good so quickly that Big Brother convinced him to seek a college scholarship. Indiana and Butler expressed interest, but there was a hangup: Garo didn’t have a high school diploma — another casualty of the turmoil in Cyprus. So Krikor wrote letters to several pro teams in hopes of getting him a tryout.

In Week 6 the Falcons, a first-year expansion team in need of almost everything, gave him a look — and were impressed. “He’s not a very big guy — 5-foot-8, 165 pounds — but he was knocking them [through] consistently from 55 yards,” coach Norb Hecker said afterward. Atlanta reportedly made him an offer, but he’d promised the Lions he’d work out for them before he signed with anybody. The next day he was in Detroit, leaving the coaches and players there just as slack-jawed.

According to one report, Yepremian made 19 of 20 tries from the 45-to-50 yards. In those days, that was ridiculous. Consider: NFL kickers converted a mere 55.7 percent of all field goal attempts that season. Even Wayne Walker, the Lions’ incumbent kicker, had to give him his due. “The best . . . I’ve ever seen,” he said.

And a soccer-styler to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). In 1966, you see, “sidewinders” were still very much a novelty. There were only three in pro ball, all in the NFL — the two Gogolak brothers, Pete (Giants) and Charlie (Redskins), and Yepremian.

Traditionalists weren’t sure quite what to make of them. On one level, they were horrified that these Non-Football Players were trying to move in on the “foot” part of the game. Walker, after all, was a Pro Bowl linebacker, and other kickers, like the Browns’ Lou Groza, were former position players. The diminutive Yepremian, meanwhile, looked like he’d taken a wrong turn on the way to elf practice.

“No longer does the kicker have to be a heavy-duty performer who is part of the team,” The New York Times’ Arthur Daley lamented around that time. “He can be a man apart, and the only time he experiences rude contact is just before a roughing-the-kicker penalty.”

Then there was Yepremian’s unorthodox style, which made use of his instep rather than his toes. That took some getting used to, too. As the Oakland Tribune described it: “Garo uses only a skip and two short steps to get off his kicks. According to the laws of physics, his instep covers a greater area than the American toe kickers [enjoy] and helps boot the ball a greater distance. Also the whiplash of a sideway kick gives the leg greater speed.”

Or something like that.

Heck, these guys weren’t even Americans. Yepremian was from London . . . or Cyprus . . . or somewhere, and the Gogolaks had sneaked off to America amid the Hungarian Revolution. Indeed, it’s remarkable how the upheaval in Europe during and after World War II changed — in a huge way — the game of football. Fred Bednarski, believed to be the first college sidewinder — for Texas in 1957 — was a Polish refugee who’d spent some time in a Nazi labor camp. And Walt Doleschal, an early soccer-styler for Lafayette, was a displaced Czechoslovakian.

(That’s why, whenever somebody wonders why soccer isn’t a bigger deal in the U.S., I always say, “It is a big deal, a very big deal. It’s just been incorporated into football.”)

Once the sidewinders began infiltrating the sport, kicking became much less of a hit-or-miss proposition, especially from long distance. What was the success rate on field goals last season, 84 percent? (From 50 yards and beyond, it was 61.) Nowadays, anything inside the 40 is, in the fan’s mind, a veritable PAT. Best not miss too many of those.

Anyway, Lions coach Harry Gilmer was forward thinking enough to get Yepremian’s name on a contract before the rest of the league became aware of him. The Motor City also had something going for it that Atlanta might not have: an Armenian church Garo could go to. The newest Lion, then 22, hustled back to Indy to gather up his clothes, then rejoined the club in time to make the trip to Baltimore for the next game. Oops, almost forgot: He had to obtain a work permit before he could suit up.

At first, Yepremian just handled kickoffs; Walker did the rest of booting. Against the Colts, Garo knocked one into the end zone and the other to the 5-yard line. This, by the way, was a familiar arrangement for the Lions. In the ’50s they’d often split the job between a Short Guy (e.g. Bobby Layne) and a Long Guy (e.g. Jim Martin) — as had other teams. The ’63 Bears, in fact, won the title with Roger LeClerc (field goals) and Bob Jencks (extra points) sharing the duties.

Besides, Yepremian had enough to worry about that first week. Never mind the strange surroundings and the large, sweaty men looking askance at him, he didn’t even know how to put on his uniform. Shoulder pads were a total mystery to him, and he “had no idea whether the sweat socks went inside or outside the long stockings,” the Oakland paper said. He also had yet to receive any instruction in the fine art of tackling. If the returner comes your way, he was told, “try to get an angle — and then fall in front of him.”

Then things started happening in a hurry for Yepremian. In his second game, in San Francisco, Walker got ejected in the second quarter — one of the hazards of being an Actual Football Player — and Garo had to do it all. He didn’t exactly ace the test, making just one of four field goal tries, a 30-yarder, and going three for three on point-afters. But hey, at least he was on the scoreboard.

Three weeks later, when he got his next big chance, he was ready. Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame quarterback, had his problems that day, throwing five interceptions, and Yepremian was the main beneficiary. The Lions offense had trouble punching the ball in, so Gilmer kept sending him in to kick field goals — six in eight attempts. That broke the NFL record of five set 15 years earlier by Rams great Bob Waterfield. (Garo’s four three-pointers in one quarter, the second, were another mark.)

Detroit’s first 18 points in a 32-31 victory came on Yepremian boots of 33, 26, 15, 20, 28 and 32 yards. Granted, there weren’t any long ones, but the sports world was amazed nonetheless — amazed that this nobody from another hemisphere, this abbreviated kicker with a quirky technique, had hijacked an NFL game.

6 FG headline

Murray thought it was hysterical that Yepremian played for Detroit, an old-fashioned team that hit hard and partied harder. To him, the Lions were an unlikely franchise to steer pro football into the future. (Frankly, Jim shuddered to think of them behind the wheel of any moving vehicle.)

“They lead the league in airport fights, lawsuits, barroom brawls,” he wrote. “The team emblem should be a swizzle stick. Or a camel. They’re the thirstiest team in the game. The water boy carries olives.

“Other teams have a rugged line of defense. The Lions have a rugged line of defendants. Others have a team trainer on the bench. The Lions have a team bail bondsman. They spend half their time going over their plays and the other half going over their constitutional rights. . . .

“All of which is why — when they signed a native of the island of Cyprus to play for them — a lot of us thought they wanted him to stomp grapes.”

You can imagine how welcoming that Detroit locker room must have been to a Cypriot kicker of Armenian extraction who spoke four languages — none of which was Football. Veterans in that era were notoriously hard on rookies, and the Lions were among the league leaders in the hazing department. In his Yepremian appreciation a few days ago, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote that Garo “was hung by his jersey on a locker’s hook by [Lions defensive] tackle Alex Karras.” If so, he got off easy.

Even after Yepremian set the record, the media struggled to get his name right. It wasn’t just the “Yepremian,” either. The very next week, the Baltimore Sun referred him as “Gary” Yepremian. (Those poor linotype operators. Decades of muscle memory must have made it awfully hard to override the “y” and type G-a-r-o.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 11.02.53 PM

A strong finish left Yepremian with 13 field goals in 22 tries, the sixth-best percentage in the two leagues (59.1). Not bad for a guy who began the year in England, almost ended up playing college ball that fall, didn’t go to an NFL training camp, wasn’t signed until Oct. 12 and, oh yeah, was new to the game.

It was another four seasons before Garo caught on with the Dolphins and went from being a curiosity to one of the top kickers in the league — and one of the most clutch. But it all began with the Lions in ’66, when he showed the disbelieving masses he could do a lot more than crush grapes. He also could crush footballs.

Source: pro-football-reference.comYepremian 6 FG photo

 

How astrophysics applies to field goals

It isn’t often an astrophysicist is given the floor at Pro Football Daly, but I thought you might be interested in something Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the May issue of Esquire.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, honorary Vulcan.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, honorary Vulcan.

Why? Because in an interview with Scott Raab, Tyson goes off on a fascinating tangent about, of all things, field goal kicking. Their chat begins with Raab marveling at the famed Science Explainer’s gift for “spreading knowledge,” despite America’s anti-intellectual bent. That leads to this exchange:

Tyson: I don’t think of what I do as spreading knowledge. The phrase “You’re lecturing me” is never a compliment. So I realized that’s not what I should be doing if I have any interest in compelling people to become scientifically literate.

Raab: What’s your secret?

Tyson: I’ve found that no one complains about pop culture being a source of someone lecturing to them. If someone’s telling you about Kim Kardashian, you’re not going to accuse them of lecturing to you. If I can explore an intersection between pop culture and science literacy, then it generally will not come across as a lecture. You’re surfing a wave already created by pop-culture force. During the Super Bowl, one of my tweets was, “A 50-yard field goal, in the University of Phoenix Stadium, deflects about one-third inch to the right due to the earth’s rotation.” Now, we’ve all seen field goals that just hit the post and bounce out, so the rotation of the earth prevented a [field] goal! Everyone is interested in the Super Bowl and long field goals, and I judged that there would be deep curiosity in the fact that the rotation of the earth could affect the outcome of a game.

Raab: A third of an inch? That seems like a dramatic effect, actually.

Tyson: There are other stadiums where it would be half an inch. It depends on the angle of the stadium relative to the longitude.

It would make a great trivia question at a Super Bowl party, wouldn’t it?

Who has blocked the most field goals in NFL history?

Answer: The rotation of the earth.

Fortunately for the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka, this 27-yard field goal try in Super Bowl 49 wasn't affected much by the earth's rotation.

This 27-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka in the Super Bowl wasn’t affected much by the earth’s rotation.

The NFL’s 82-year-old PAT “problem”

Sometime soon the NFL is expected to do something about the extra point. What that something is will be decided by the Competition Committee, the owners and possibly the ASPCK (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Kickers). It’s beginning to bother me, though, that I haven’t heard Two Little Words very much, words that should be a big part of this discussion:

Point value.

By point value, I’m talking mainly about the relationship between the touchdown (six points) and the field goal (three). Since the league was founded in 1920, a TD has almost always been worth more than two field goals because the PAT has been virtually automatic. This, to my mind, is as it should be. Driving the length of the field and punching the ball across is more of an accomplishment than, say, getting stopped twice at the 30 and booting a pair of 48-yard field goals.

Stephen Curry: xx.x%. NFL kickers: 84%.

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry: 91.6%. NFL kickers: 84%.

That’s especially true nowadays, when a field-goal try has about the same success rate as a Stephen Curry free throw. Last season kickers made 84 percent of their three-pointers (61 percent from 50 yards and beyond). The year before they were even more accurate (86.5).

One of the arguments for dickering with the PAT is to reduce the impact of these specialists, which is far out of proportion to the time they spend on the field. So why, I ask, would you want to change the rule so that there would be more unsuccessful point-afters, as the league is reportedly considering? Because if there are more of those — by either run, pass or kick — then you have more instances of a touchdown being worth only six points . . . the same as two field goals.

I’d rather have a TD worth seven points — as it’s essentially been for decades — and give the scoring team a chance for a bonus point from the 2-yard line – or wherever the odds would be closest to 50/50. No kicks allowed. (There are more than enough of those.)

Then you’d have an Exciting Play after every touchdown and games would sometimes decided by the proficiency of a team’s extra-point offense (or defense). Wouldn’t that be preferable to what we have now? If you wanted to add some spice to it, you could give the D the opportunity to score a point by returning a fumble or interception the length of the field (something the league is also said to be weighing). Seems only fair.

This, of course, would involve burying the two-point conversion. Let’s face it, there’s always been a certain illogic to it. For moving the ball two yards, the offense scores as many points as the defense does for tackling the ball carrier in the end zone for a safety — and almost as many as a kicker does for booting a 64-yard field goal. Again, it all goes back to point value.

Pro football doesn’t the need a gimmick like that. Scoring is at historic levels; in each of the last three seasons it’s topped 45 points a game, equaling the previous best three-year stretch from 1948 to ’50. The Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, meanwhile, drew 114.4 million viewers, a record for the game. The NFL’s customers are clearly satisfied, whether the PAT is reimagined or not.

It would do the league no harm, that I can see, to leave the point-after exactly as is. (Would it make one dollar less?) But it could do it some harm if four or five goal-line plays were added to each game. All we’d need is a star player or two to suffer a season-ending injury — for the sake of a measly additional point — and we’d have sports-talk-show hosts shrieking, “What the #%&@! were they thinking?”

(Note: The short-lived World Football League adopted, in 1974, a rule like the one I’m proposing. After a touchdown, which was worth seven points, the ball was marked at the 2 ½-yard line, and the scoring team could add another point via a run or pass. The “action point,” it was called.)

There are reasons the extra point has, over the decades, fought off attempt after attempt to eliminate it. Its history, in fact, is infinitely more interesting than the play itself. The play itself is a metronomic bore: snap, hold, kick. (Or as I like to think of it: We interrupt this game to bring you the World Cup.) It also has never seemed like much of a football play, even if it does involve the foot.

Worse, it’s utterly predictable. Only once in the last nine seasons, near as I can determine, has a game been decided by a missed PAT — this one between the Cardinals and Cowboys on Dec. 25, 2010. (Merry Christmas!)

At least as early as 1933, there were folks in the NFL lobbying to get rid of the point-after. That was the year the Giants’ Tim Mara sought to “abolish” it and replace it with “a 10-minute overtime period in the event that the regulation game ends in a tie,” The New York Times reported.

Mara pointed out that of 58 league games played during the past season only one was decided by the extra point and that [10] . . . resulted in ties.

“In every sport but football authorities have sought to avoid a tie score,” Mara declared. “No matter whom you are rooting for you don’t want to see a game end in a tie. The game has reached such a stage now that few field goals are attempted. The one desire seems to be a touchdown.”

So that, maybe, was the first grenade lobbed in the PAT’s direction. The league was choking on tie games, and the point-after wasn’t helping to break those ties (which is one of the things it was supposed to do).

Bert Bell, as owner of the Eagles and later as NFL commissioner, made the quashing of the extra point a personal crusade. He did everything he could to get it stricken from the rulebook. One of his main arguments was that the change would “do away with the one-point spread in which gamblers are so much interested,” he said in 1951. This, he predicted, would cut down “gambling by 60 percent.”

Not long afterward he pushed for touchdowns to be revalued at seven points — thereby making the PAT superfluous. The Times referred to it as his “perennial suggestion.” It was voted down, 7-5.

Lloyd Larsen, the Milwaukee Sentinel columnist, joked that Bell might have had an ulterior motive. “Could it be,” he wondered, “that his real concern is the cost of footballs [$17 per] kicked into the crowd?”

Actually, there might have been some truth to this — in the early years, anyway. One Sunday in 1935, Bell nearly ran out of footballs during a blowout loss to the Bears in Philadelphia. Chicago’s Jack Manders kept booting extra points into the stands, and the fans kept keeping them as consolation prizes. By the third quarter, only one usable ball was left. So after their last two touchdowns, the Bears waived their right to a PAT and just lined up for the kickoff. That explained the unusual final score: 39-0.

In 1968, almost a decade after Bell’s death, the NFL and AFL conducted a joint experiment with the point-after. In the 23 interleague preseason games that year — this was before the merger, remember — teams were given the option of running or passing for the point from the 2-yard line. Kicks were verboten.

But while the provisional rule jazzed up some otherwise dreary exhibition games, it never gained much traction with the owners — and was deposited, along with all the other brainstorms whose time had not yet come, in the dustbin of history.

And now here we are, almost half a century later, wrestling with the PAT question again. I just wish, while we were mulling the issue, the words “point value” were being thrown around more often. Two field goals should never equal a touchdown. They just shouldn’t.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Nobody hated the PAT more than NFL commissioner Bert Bell (shown here working in the schedule -- with dominoes).

Nobody hated the PAT more than NFL commissioner Bert Bell (shown here working on the schedule — with dominoes).

The passing record Lou Groza once held

When you think of Lou Groza, you think of this big guy — 6-3, 240, with a bit of a belly — booting field goals forever for the Browns. Groza happened to be a fine offensive tackle, too, protecting the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for more than a decade, but it’s his 264 field goals and 1,608 points that are more remembered. When he retired after the 1967 season, he held the career record in both categories. By a mile.

Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Browns Hall of Famer Lou Groza, doing what he did best.

Anyway, you might be amused to learn that “The Toe,” as he was called, once held an NFL passing record. What record could that possibly be, you ask? Answer: For almost five years, he was the oldest player ever to throw a pass in the league.

Groza made this little piece of history in a 27-17 loss to the Vikings in 1965 – at the age of 41 years, 279 days. Patricia Heaton’s dad, Chuck, who covered the Browns for The Plain Dealer, described it this way:

The large and somewhat stunned gathering also saw Lou Groza throw a forward pass. The Toe, who on very few occasions in the past has had to resort to such desperation maneuvers, was trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.

The pass from center bounced away from Bobby Franklin, the holder. Lou recovered and, being confronted with nothing but purple [Vikings] jerseys, tried a pass. It was intended for John Brewer but wasn’t completed. So Minnesota took over.

The next season, in a similar situation, Groza threw another pass. This one was actually completed . . . for a 7-yard loss to one of his blockers, linebacker Vince Costello. Lou was now 42 years, 256 days old. This would stand as the record until 1975, when the George Blanda – a spry 43 years, 38 days – came off the bench to quarterback the Raiders to a 31-14 win over the Steelers. (He even tossed three touchdown passes, all of them longer than minus-7 yards.)

Blanda was still chucking in 1975, his final year in the NFL. In fact, in his last regular-season game, he went 1 for 3 for 11 yards (with one interception) as Oakland beat the Chiefs, 28-20. He’s still the Oldest Guy To Throw A Pass by more than three years.

In the decades since, only four other players older than Groza have cocked their arm and let one fly. Here’s that list:

THE SIX OLDEST PLAYERS TO THROW A PASS IN THE NFL

Year  Player, Team Vs Att Comp Yds TD Int Rate Age
1975  George Blanda, Raiders Chiefs   3   1   11 0 1     5.6 48-095
1998  Steve DeBerg, Falcons Dolphins 10   5   85 1 0 112.5 44-342
2007  Vinny Testaverde, Panthers Jaguars 28 13   84 0 1   38.4 44-026
2000  Warren Moon, Chiefs Chargers 31 12 130 0 1   38.4 44-008
2005  Doug Flutie, Patriots Jets   1   1     2 0 0   79.2 43-064
1966  Lou Groza, Browns Steelers   1   1    -7 0 0   79.2 42-256

The record Groza broke, by the way, was held by the Giants’ Charlie Conerly, who was 89 days past his 40th birthday when he relieved Y.A. Tittle in the 1961 title game against the Packers and hit 4 of 8 passes for 54 yards. (Not that “The Toe” wasn’t capable of a performance like that, had the center and holder just botched the snap a half-dozen more times.)

Postscript: When Bob O’Donnell and I were writing The Pro Football Chronicle in the ’80s, we came across an old story about Groza in one of the Cleveland newspapers. Instead of a head shot of him, though, the paper ran a photo of his right big toe.

Bob and I thought it would be hilarious if we could include The Toe’s toe in our book, so we tried to track the photo down. Alas, it had been lost to the ages. So Bob, not easily discouraged, phoned Groza and asked if his toe would be willing to pose for us. “We’ll send a photographer to your house,” he said.

At first, Lou was up for it. “No need to go to all that trouble,” he said. “I drive right by this photography studio every day. I’ll have the picture taken there and send it to you.” But soon he began to have second thoughts, began to think it might be “undignified” for a Hall of Fame player to have his 65-year-old toe appear in a book.

If I ever run into him in the hereafter, I’m going to make another pitch to him. I still think the world would love to see Lou Groza’s big right toe, gnarly or not.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Here’s the kicker

In fact, here are two of them. The first is Stephen Gostkowski, who went over 100 points for the season in the Patriots’ ninth game. He’s only the second pure kicker in NFL/AFL history to get to 100 points — 101, actually — that fast. The other is Lawrence Tynes with the Giants two years ago (102).

But . . .  three running backs and four multitaskers — guys who played an offensive position and doubled as kickers — also have accomplished the feat. Two of the seven did it twice. The details:

NFL/AFL PLAYERS WHO HAVE SCORED 100 POINTS IN THE FIRST NINE GAMES

Year Player, Team TD FG PAT Pts (Final Total*)
2014 K Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots 0 34 29 101 (TBD)
2012 K Lawrence Tynes, Giants 0 26 24 102 (145)
2006 RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers 18 0 0 108 (186*)
2005 RB Shaun Alexander, Seahawks 17 0 0 102 (168*)
1962 WR-K Gino Cappelletti, Patriots (AFL) 4 16 28 100 (128)
1962 RB-K Gene Mingo, Broncos (AFL) 4 18 23 101 (137*)
1961 RB-K Paul Hornung, Packers 10 12 34 130 (146*)
1961 WR-K Gino Cappelletti, Patriots (AFL) 7 12 32 110 (147*)
1960 RB-K Paul Hornung, Packers 11 11 30 129 (176*)
1958 RB Jim Brown, Browns 17 0 0 102 (108*)
1942 WR-K Don Hutson, Packers 15 0 29 119 (138*)

*led league

Notes: Hornung reached 100 in just seven games in 1960 (100 exactly) and again in 1961 (101). Cappelletti had 100 through eight games in ’61, and Hutson had 104 through eight in ’42. . . . Hornung missed two games in ‘61 because of a military commitment.

Anyway, that’s a pretty impressive bunch. Hornung, Brown and Hutson are in the Hall of Fame, and Tomlinson figures to join them soon enough.

The second kicker I wanted to call to your attention is Shayne Graham, currently with the Saints. I say “currently” because Graham has certainly been making the rounds lately. Since he left the Bengals as a free agent in 2010, he’s been with 10 different teams and played at least one regular season game with five of them.

A brief summary of his travels:

● 2010 – Ravens (cut before season), Giants (1 game), Patriots (8).

● 2011 – Redskins (cut in camp), Cowboys (cut before season), Dolphins (2 games), Ravens (1).

● 2012 – Texans (16 games).

● 2013 – Browns (cut in camp), Steelers (on their roster for a game but wasn’t active), Saints (2).

● 2014 – Saints (9 games and counting).

How do ya like them frequent-flyer miles? But here’s the thing: Despite his job tenuousness, Graham has kicked the ball very well. In fact, in these five seasons — or parts thereof — he hasn’t missed a field goal try under 40 yards. The breakdown:

SHAYNE GRAHAM’S FIELD GOAL KICKING BY DISTANCE, 2010-14

0-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50+ Made Missed %
2-2 22-22 22-22 18-14 10-5 65 9 87.2

(Numbers below distances are field goals attempted and made.)

To live out of a suitcase — well, practically — for five years and still perform at this level is . . . the definition of a pro. A guy like that deserves to kick in a dome at this stage of his career. He’s earned it.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Much-traveled Shayne Graham has made 14 of 15 field goal tries for the Saints this season.

Much-traveled Shayne Graham has made 14 of 15 field goal tries for the Saints this season.

For Rex Ryan’s eyes only

That was a tough way for the Jets to lose Thursday night — on a Hail Mary 58-yard field goal try by Nick Folk that failed to clear the big paw of Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rex Ryan, assuming he could get himself to sleep afterward, had a dream like this:

For the record, that’s one, two, three, four 1936 Green Bay Packers knocking through 50-yarders. This is from a promotional video filmed in Hollywood after the Packers beat the Boston Redskins to win the NFL title. No. 7 is Hall of Fame fullback Clarke Hinkle, No. 57 is tackle Ade Schwammel, No. 52 is guard Tiny Engebretsen and No. 59 is center Frank Butler. (I’m going by the all-time uniform numbers listed in the Packers’ 2014 media guide. It’s also possible No. 59 is tackle Ernie Smith, who did most of their kicking.)

As you can see, all of them are good-sized guys. Teams back then liked kickers with “a heavy leg.” They figured it helped get more distance. Note, too, the white footballs — which were used for night games because they were more visible and were used in this instance for the same reason, so the camera could pick them up in the distance.

Imagine having four players on your team capable of booting a 50-yarder. Of course, it was more of a kicking game in those days, so it was a skill you developed if you had the ability. It wasn’t unusual for a club to rotate several kickers — depending, perhaps, on the distance of the kick.  Some kickers were better on the shorter ones, some were better on the longer ones.

The best and worst of kicking

On one side Sunday, you had the Bills’ Dan Carpenter booming a 58-yard field goal with four seconds left to give his team a come-from-behind 17-14 victory. On the other, you had the Lions’ Alex Henery missing all three of his boots — none shorter than 44 yards — and losing his job because of it.

That, friends, is all you need to know about the kicking profession in the 2000s. The NFL has kickers these days capable of knocking through a game-winner from 58 yards or longer, if need be. But the bar for them has been raised so high that missing more than a handful of boots a season — never mind three in an afternoon — is likely to put them on the unemployment line. They’re the victims of their own near-perfection.

Granted, Henery has had a rough go of it this year. In his two games for Detroit, he was 1 for 5 on field goal tries, a success rate that might have raised eyebrows even in the ’50s. But he also has a track record, and it’s pretty good. In his three previous NFL seasons, all with the Eagles, he converted 86 percent of his attempts. But now he’s gone because, well, that’s just the way it is in pro football.

As Lions coach Jim Caldwell put it: “There’s somebody out there for us that’ll do the job for us. We just got to see if we can track him down quickly.”

Translation: No biggie. We’ll just hold a tryout, open up another box of 86-percent kickers and see who performs best. (It turned out to be Matt Prater, the former Bronco.)

NFL soccer-stylers have become so accurate, even from great distances, that last year they were successful on 86.5 percent of their field goal tries (which made Henery, at 82.1, below average). There even have been kickers, two of them, who have gone through an entire season without missing. And, of course, Tom Dempsey’s 63-yarder, which had stood as the record since 1970, was finally topped  by Prater, who booted a 64-yarder in Denver’s thin air last December.

The field goal is becoming almost as automatic as the extra point. So it’s easy to forget, with all these footballs tumbling through the uprights, that, at late as the ’60s, it was a very hit-or-miss proposition. And earlier than that, it was more miss than hit.

Let’s pay a visit to 1939 for a moment, to a game between the Redskins and Pittsburgh Pirates (they weren’t the Steelers yet). The Redskins won easily, 44-14, but they also missed five PATs. The Associated Press’ account read like this:

“Jim German ran off right tackle to a touchdown. Washington missed the kick. . . . [Andy] Farkas knifed through for the score. His kick was blocked by Sam Boyd. . . . Frank Filchock stood in the end zone, passed to Farkas on the 4-yard stripe, and Andy galloped 96 yards for a touchdown — a total gain of 99 yards. Turk Edwards’ kick was not good. . . . [Dick] Todd . . . raced 60 yards for another touchdown. Bob Masterson’s kick was not good. . . . Ed Justice went around left end . . . for the final Redskin[s] touchdown. [Bo] Russell missed the kick.”

This is obviously an extreme example of what I’m talking about. The Redskins were so far ahead that day that they started goofing around and letting everybody kick. (Russell and Masterson were their main guys.) But it just shows how casual teams could be about kicking and how inexact a science it was — even though PATs were 10 yards shorter because the goal posts were on the goal line.

Pittsburgh’s kicker, Armand Niccolai, was one of the better ones in the league — so good that, after he retired following the 1941 season, the team talked him into coming back for one more year. Since he’d already taken a coaching and teaching job at a local high school and couldn’t attend the Steelers’ practices, he just showed up for the games.

“He will not even don pads,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “but will be used exclusively as a placekicker.”

No practices and no pads! What a sweet deal. Alas, he made just 2 of 14 field-goal attempts that year and decided, wisely, to retire for good.

Niccolai’s final season is one of the worst of all time by a kicker. His competition:

WORST SEASONS BY KICKERS (10 OR MORE FGA)

Year Kicker, Team Made Att %
1965 Bob Timberlake, Giants      1 15 6.7
1955 Art Michalik, Steelers      1 12 8.3
1939 Clarke Hinkle, Packers      1 10 10
1963 Bob Jencks, Bears      1 10 10
1952 Joe Geri, Cardinals      2 18 11.1
1942 Armand Niccolai, Steelers      2 14 14.3
1963 Jack  Spikes, Chiefs      2 13 15.4
1950 Ted Fritsch, Packers      3 17 17.6

All of them, by the way, kicked in the Old Style, with their toes rather than their instep. By the ’70s, though, almost every club had a soccer-styler, and success rates started going up . . . and up . . . and up. It’s just a more reliable way to boot the ball.

Still, while you’re snickering at these percentages, keep in mind: Many of these guys played another position — back when rosters were smaller — in addition to handling the kicking. That certainly raised the margin for error. (Sonny Jurgensen once told me he never had receiver Bobby Walston run a deep route on third down when the Eagles were in field goal position because he didn’t want Walston to be tired if he was needed to kick.)

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d find out which kickers have missed the most kicks — field goals or extra points — in a season. There are some interesting names on it, including two Hall of Famers.

MOST MISSED KICKS IN A SEASON (FG AND PAT)

Year Kicker, Team FG PAT Total
1964 Paul Hornung*, Packers 12-38 41-43 28
1961 John Aveni, Redskins 5-28 21-23 25
1976 Jan Stenerud*, Chiefs 21-38 27-33 23
1963 Lou Michaels, Steelers 21-41 32-35 23
1967 Bruce Gossett, Rams 20-43 48-48 23
1969 Tom Dempsey, Saints 22-41 33-35 21
1969 Roy Gerela, Oilers (AFL) 19-40 29-29 21
1969 Gino Cappelletti, Patriots (AFL) 14-34 26-27 21
1966 Bruce Gossett, Rams 28-49 29-29 21
1963 Jerry Kramer, Packers 16-34 43-46 21
1963 Tommy Davis,49ers 10-31 24-24 21
1960 Larry Barnes, Raiders (AFL) 6-25 37-39 21

*Hall of Famer

If you’ve ever wondered why Vince Lombardi’s Packers didn’t win the title in 1963 and ’64 — after going back to back in ’61 and ’62 (and winning three more from 1965 to ’67) — you can start with kicking. Kramer and Hornung missed 44 field goal tries in those seasons, and the Golden Boy’s 26 misses in ’64 are an NFL record that probably will last forever. After serving a one-year suspension in ’63 for betting on games, Paul simply lost it as a kicker.

It’s also worth noting that the kicker who has missed the most field goal attempts in a game since 1960 — the Cardinals’ Jim Bakken, six, vs. the Falcons in ’66 — turned around the next season and booted seven in a game, a mark that wasn’t broken for 40 years.

That’s what was so ironic about the Bills-Lions game. Henery got fired for going 0 for 3, right? Guess who the last kicker to have an 0-for-4 day was.

Carpenter, Buffalo’s hero, in 2010.

So maybe this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Alex Henery.

Armand Niccolai clothing ad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: pro-football-reference.com

When soccer invaded football

A fairly noteworthy 50th anniversary is coming up — on Sept. 13, to be exact. It’ll be interesting to see how much attention is paid to it. On that date in 1964, in the Bills’ opener against the Chiefs, Pete Gogolak kicked the first soccer-style field goal in pro football history. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of too many developments in the game that have been more impactful than that.

Contrary to popular belief, Gogolak, who went to Cornell, wasn’t the original sidewinder, as they were called in those days. Others had preceded him in the college ranks, including Fred Bednarski at Texas, Evan Paoletti at tiny Huron (S.D.) College and Walt Doleschal at Lafayette. They all had a similar story: They’d spent their early years in Europe playing soccer, been displaced by World War II — or its turbulent aftermath — and sought sanctuary in the U.S. Not for a second did they ever think they’d revolutionize This Strange American Game.

“I couldn’t believe what these people were doing — fighting each other!” Bednarski once told me of his first football impressions. It’s a miracle, really, that Fred ever made it to America. He was 5 when the Nazis uprooted his family from Poland and dumped them in a labor camp in Salzburg, Austria. The living conditions there bordered on inhuman.

“In the wintertime, we had to melt snow just to have enough water to wash up,” Bednarski said. “There was only one toilet at the end of the barracks. In our room we had two families — ours and an older couple. We used a blanket to separate us. There were triple-decker beds, no mattresses. We slept on straw with a sheet over it.”

As for food, “It was really kind of a slow starvation. We were just lucky to be liberated by the Americans when we were. My mother weighed about 75, 80 pounds at the end of the war.”

In 1957 Bednarski booted what’s believed to be the first soccer-style field goal in college ball — a 38-yarder against Arkansas. But he, Paoletti and Doleschal are largely forgotten because, unlike Fred Bednarski storyGogolak, they never made it to the pros. It’s a terrible injustice, because their innovation continues to have a profound effect on football.

Consider: In ’57, the year Bednarski made history, NFL kickers — all of them using their toes instead of the side of their foot — were successful on 52.2 percent of their field goal tries. Last season they made 86.5 percent (and were good on 67.1 from 50 yards and beyond).

The goal posts have been moved from the goal line to the back of the end zone . . . and it hasn’t mattered; the percentages keep going up. Indeed, most of the scoring rise in the league in recent years is due to kickers being more accurate, not offenses scoring more touchdowns.

Then, too, kickers are now specialists, among the most important members of any team. In the ’50s, when rosters were much smaller, they tended to be position players who were versatile enough to handle two jobs.

And it all began — in the pros, at least — 50 years ago with Pete Gogolak stepping back at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium and side-footing through a 13-yarder to give the Bills an early 3-0 lead in Week 1. Two seasons and 47 field goals later, Gogolak was in such demand that he jumped leagues and joined the Giants, a signing that intensified the AFL-NFL war and helped bring about the merger.

Yes, soccer-style kicking has made a huge mark on the game, though you don’t often hear someone express that opinion very loudly. This is, after all, American football, not the kind that’s so popular on the other side of the pond. It’s no coincidence that only one pure kicker, Jan Stenerud, has found his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Maybe we’ll bat that subject around someday.

Sources: pro-football-reference, The National Forgotten League, The Associated Press.

R. C. Owens’ one-of-a-kind field goal block, revisited

History, as we all know, is a living thing. More information — better information — comes along, and the record gets revised. Earlier this week I published a post (and photo) about the Colts’ R. C. Owens blocking a field goal try in 1962 in a unique way: He stood back by the goal posts, jumped as high as he could and re-jected a kick attempted by the Redskins.

The newspaper accounts said it was an NFL first, and in all my research I’ve never come across another play like it. (I do remember seeing — on TV — a 1970 game between the Chiefs and Raiders in which Morris Stroud, the Chiefs’ 6-10 tight end, played “goalie” in the closing seconds and nearly blocked a 48-yarder by George Blanda (a boot that left the bitter rivals in a 17-17 deadlock). The Associated Press reported: “The ball barely made it over the crossbar and above the hands of . . . Stroud, who was stationed at the goal line.”

Reader/Facebook buddy/fellow blogger Jack Finarelli brought up another candidate in a comment: Erich Barnes, a six-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Bears, Giants and Browns from 1958 to ’71. Wrote Jack: “I think I remember [him] doing this also in a game about 1961 or 1962. As I recall, it was considered a ‘blocked field goal’ and was open for recovery.”

So I did a little investigating. Turns out Barnes did do something like that — in 1969, when he was playing for Cleveland. (He may have done it as a Giant, too, but my search of The New York Times archive turned up nothing. It did, though, produce a photo of him blocking a field goal in the conventional fashion against the Rams in ’61.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 4.41.46 PM

 

Here’s the link to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s story on The Game in Question. The relevant passage is as follows:

The Eagles got on the board in the second quarter after a freak play. Erich Barnes, who also was injured late in the game and may have a cracked rib, leaped high to deflect Sam Baker’s field goal bid.

Erich was playing right in front of the goal posts. He touched the ball and it bounced back in the playing field, where it was recovered by [Philadelphia’s] Tim Rossovich.

So the Eagles had a first down on the Cleveland 2-yard line. They took it into the end zone on two smashes by Tom Woodeshick.

Maybe that’s why Barnes’ play has been forgotten: because, unlike Owens’, it didn’t prevent the opponent from scoring. In fact, it cost the Browns four points — the difference between a field goal and a touchdown.

There’s also uncertainty about whether Baker’s boot would have gone through the uprights. According to United Press International, he “was short on a 44-yard field goal attempt, and Barnes, leaping high at the goal post in a bid to deflect the ball, batted it back on the playing field.”

Which is why it was a live ball — and why the Eagles were able retain possession. Had the kick gone into the end zone, as it (presumably) did in Owens’ case, it would have been ruled a touchback.

What we don’t know — because we don’t have the game film handy — is what UPI meant by “short.” It could have just meant the ball would have barely made it over to the crossbar. Or . . . it could have meant Barnes’ block was superfluous.

I’d like to think this blog can do this kind of stuff often — that is, try to get the facts as straight as we can. The truth, after all, is in the details.

Sources: newspaperarchive.com, The New York Times archive, Cleveland Plain Dealer archive, pro-football-reference.com.