The NFL is a juggernaut, an unrelenting force in American life on the level of Facebook, Amazon and Marvel movies. And like all other unrelenting forces, it’s in dire need of some honest good publicity.
That’s why the idea that USWNT star Carli Lloyd is apparently serious about a run at the league — and why at least two teams are serious about giving her a look — is some legitimate good news for a league that rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Lloyd kicked a 55-yard field goal at a Philadelphia Eagles practice last week, prompting “ha ha, get her in a Bears uniform!” lines across the sports world. But after the easy jokes—and the predictable no-girls-in-my-football backlash — a realization set in: Hey, maybe — just maybe — this could work. Maybe one of the greatest kickers in the world today could actually kick a different-shaped ball.
— Carli Lloyd (@CarliLloyd) August 20, 2019
“I think I definitely could [take a run at NFL kicking] with the right practice and the right technique and get my steps down and figure all that out,” she said earlier this week. “But I don’t want to go in there blindly. I want to actually attempt to do it [the right way], but I know that I definitely could do it, because anything I set my mind to do I can do it and I actually do kick balls for a living. So, yeah, it’s all about the technique, and we’ll see what happens, but I’m now entertaining the idea.”
Let’s be honest here: the chances of Lloyd — or of any soccer player of any gender— jumping from the pitch to the pros are vanishingly small. Kickers who have booted footballs their entire lives struggle to reach the pro level. Once there, kickers’ careers have all the durability of a reasonable idea on Facebook.
Still, when Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen is jumping on the Lloyd Express, maybe this whole deal is worth a closer look after all. What’s the worst that could happen?
— Morten Andersen (@GreatDane2544) August 28, 2019
No matter what, Lloyd won’t take a shot at an NFL gig until 2020. Still, this is setting up to be one of the most fascinating stories in sports over the next year. Lloyd better get her answers ready because she’s going to be the focus of stories from now until she decides to hang up her ambition — or her NFL jersey.
To be clear: Lloyd doesn’t deserve to jump the line for a job in the NFL — not because of her gender, not because of her worldwide accolades. What she deserves is an equal chance to make her way through the process — to prove that she can kick a football as well as a soccer ball, to prove that she has the accuracy, the will, the spine and the mind to handle a job that’s unforgiving at best, soul-crushing at worst.
Let’s run down the hurdles Lloyd needs to clear to get from today to the NFL, in increasing order of difficulty:
Kicking field goals. The ability to kick field goals is, as you might expect, a mandatory prerequisite to becoming an NFL kicker. Not even the most progressive-minded coach is going to give a job to a kicker whose kicks don’t clear the center’s butt. (Aside: have you ever tried to kick a field goal? It’s really damn hard! So before you get on Lloyd for kicking in shorts on an open field — and we’ll get to all that in a bit — maybe go try kicking under some easy conditions yourself, see how you’d fare.)
Dealing with fans. This will be a challenge, since there’s a loud subset of NFL fandom that howls against change: female kickers, the forward pass, concussion safety protocols, integration, you name it. They’re tough to ignore, but they safely can be, since a far larger slice of fandom would either welcome Lloyd as a pioneer or be happy just to get a decent kicker in uniform. Bears fans, for instance, would welcome an actual bear onto the roster if it could split the uprights.
(Some critics have wondered how Lloyd would fare if she attempted a field goal and had to tackle a defender with the ball if said field goal were blockedf. With all due respect to the many dozens of kickers who will grace NFL rosters this year, size isn’t a dealbreaker, and the likelihood of a field-goal kicker needing to make a tackle is vanishingly small.
Adam Vinatieri, the most successful kicker of all time, has attempted 690 field goals coming into this year. He had only 11 blocked, and of that total, only two have been run back for any distance. Two. Zero-point-three percent. On field-goal kicks, a woman or a toddler or a mule would be just fine.)
Media expectations: Not going to lie: if Carli Lloyd were to even try out for an NFL roster, much less make a team, she’d instantly become the biggest story in the league. Every player on every team would be asked his thoughts about her.
Is that such a bad thing?
Without even trying, I’m sure you could come up with half a dozen much-less-feelgood storylines the NFL has faced in recent years: protests, domestic violence, declining ratings, player safety, contract holdouts, sudden retirement … Plus, NFL fans are plenty accustomed to media overhype long past the point of sanity. It’s why we still get so many Giants and Redskins games on national TV.
Jittery front offices: Signing a Carli Lloyd isn’t the same thing as, say, signing a politically minded former Super Bowl quarterback, but the instinct among front offices — avoid “distraction” at all costs — would run in the same direction.
(Truth: you and I both know that a “Carl Lloyd” who booted a 55-yarder would already have an invitation and a helmet waiting.)
The key would be convincing just one general manager that the benefits of bringing in a female kicker would be worth whatever troglodyte blowback the team might get from fans and knee-jerk “anti-PC” media parachuting in to comment.
Conservative coaches: This’ll be a challenge. (And before banging out some kind of “media bias” comment, we’re talking “conservative” in the strategic, not political, sense.) So many football coaches don’t do anything new because it’s never been done before, which is why someone like Sean McVay gets hailed as a messiah and people who’ve stood in line behind him at a Starbucks get offered head coaching jobs.
The lure of the traditional is a strong one, and Lloyd would upend that. Plus, she wouldn’t be an asset on kickoffs, which means coaches would either need to sign a punter who can kick, or hold open three spots for kickers … which isn’t happening.
The locker room: Here’s where Lloyd will face an uphill battle. Not the literal locker room; most NFL locker rooms now are nicer than your average Hilton. She’s not going to be changing clothes next to some beefy lineman. No, she’ll need to win over players who aren’t inclined to like kickers to begin with, regardless of gender, players who’ll spend a significant portion of their day answering questions about her. Fortunately for Lloyd, there’s an effective way to do that — though it’s the hardest challenge on this list, the boss battle.
The field: Here’s where it all comes together — or falls apart — for Lloyd. Kicking 55-yard field goals in shorts on a practice field with a five-step run up is all well and good. But it’s the equivalent of hitting a few batting practice homers and thinking you’re ready to go into a major league game as a designated hitter. How is Lloyd going to handle kicking a 55-yarder in a tense, close game with 11 onrushing linemen? Lloyd has no trouble playing on a worldwide stage — she’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time World Cup champion — but there’s still the matter of — to coin a phrase— just doing it.
“It could be a huge pivotal moment. There is no reason why a woman could not do this. And I actually invite the pressure. I love the pressure. When I have to nail something — shooting hoops, ax-throwing, kicking a field goal — that is the moment I live for and want. It comes down to the mind, training the mind,” Lloyd told Peter King earlier this week.
“It’s worth having some conversations about it. With practice and someone showing me, I know I can do it. I have one of the most accurate shots in our game. Big thing would be getting used to the big boys out there. But nothing scares me. You hold yourself back if you’re afraid. What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t make the team? Let’s just say I did try. Maybe I change the landscape a lot.”
Come on. You think a few mean comments on Twitter are going to intimidate Lloyd? Not even close.
The odds and institutional roadblocks against Lloyd reaching the NFL are vast and mountainous. Still, she should take every chance to face down every obstacle. It’ll be a hell of a story no matter what happens.
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