Justin Tucker's big boot a sign of things to come for kickers as playoff races heat up

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

The past two weeks have brought two of the most exciting field goals in recent NFL history: Denver's Matt Prater broke the all-time record with a 64-yard boot against Tennessee and Baltimore's Justin Tucker nailed a 61-yarder to beat the Lions on "Monday Night Football." Any 60-yard field goal becomes a highlight, and rightfully so. But these two kicks reflect a striking trend that is changing the sport.

In 2011, the amount of field goals of 50 yards or more leapt more than 50 percent, from 59 to 90, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The number climbed to 92 last season, and there have been 86 in 15 weeks so far this year. Before 2011, there were only two seasons with more than 60 made field goals from 50 yards or more. Now there have been three seasons in a row.

It's not like the increased distance is a trade for overall accuracy. This season is on the way to being the best ever for NFL kickers: So far, 86.1 percent of field goals are being made from all distances. That would beat the old record by nearly 2 percent. Accuracy on extra points is at an all-time high as well. Even the total number of yards punted in the NFL jumped by 5,043 from 2010 to 2011 and remained that high last season.

What's causing this arms race for legs?

There are several possibilities, but one stands out: kickers are stronger than ever.

"The younger guys coming out with the bigger legs are more fine-tuned," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Rian Lindell, who is 36. "The last thing in their minds is, 'I better make sure I get it there.'"

Lindell names Blair Walsh, Greg "Legatron" Zuerlein and Tucker as examples of the Young Turks who are helping the boom. Lindell walked off the field with Walsh after a preseason game in August (when he was with the Buffalo Bills) and the Minnesota kicker asked the veteran for advice.

"He said, 'Is there anything you can tell me?'" Lindell recalls. "I said, 'What am I gonna tell you?' I should be following you around. Every ball is 12 to 6, end over end. Holy cow."

Part of it is size. Lindell is 6-foot-3, and many kickers are now at least 6-feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds. Most kickers have a weightlifting routine now, which wasn't always the case in years past.

"I'm 6-1, 233," says the Indianapolis Colts' Pat McAfee, who is now a punter but kicked field goals in college. "I'm not a small guy." McAfee made a flying tackle on a return earlier this season in which he looked more like a linebacker than a kicker.

"Everything is better," Lindell says. "Workouts are better. The training room is better. Even the nutrition is better."

Lindell says the long snapper position has developed, with players trained specifically for that purpose instead of just being thrown into the position. There's also FieldTurf and the continued building of indoor (or climate-controlled) stadiums. Lindell even thinks the football is better than in years past.

"I think the balls are definitely part of it," he said. "Seems like it anyway. I remember sometimes they'd give you the ball [for kickoff] and I'd think, 'You want me to kick this 70 yards?'"

The trend has altered the playoff race. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tucker talked him into going for the 61-yarder even though hitting one from that far is still rare. Tucker's conversion pushed the Lions to the brink of playoff elimination and put the Ravens in much better position for an AFC North title or a wild-card spot. He scored all of the Ravens' points on Monday.

In the past, a 60-yard field goal wasn't even worth discussing, let alone counting on. Now 60 is becoming the new 50. This season, kickers are hitting more than 65 percent of 50+ yard field goals. Only 10 years ago, that rate was 48 percent. The chances of hitting a 50-yarder has gone from unlikely to likely in 10 years.

Coaches are showing a lot more faith, as the number of attempts has ramped up since 2010 as well. Part of that could be because an overall increase in offense has put more pressure on coaches to get points out of every drive, but kickers are coming through when asked.

There's no reason to think the trend will reverse. Kicking is no longer the domain of soccer nerds and eccentrics. Kicking schools have sprouted up all over and although not all of them provide the excellence they promise, there's much more science to kicking than ever.

"It used to be like if the golf world had only four coaches," Lindell said. "A lot of people don't know what they're talking about."

Worsening weather may lessen the chances of long bombs in the playoffs – remember the Lions-Eagles game two weekends ago, when not a single kick was converted because of the snow? – but with the game on the line, there's much more reason to trust the kicker from any distance.

Head coaches can ice the kicker all they want. Chances are, it won't work.

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