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Inside the mind of an NFL kicker

The NFL playoffs start next weekend and here's one safe bet: at least a few games will come down to football's great secret hiding in plain sight. We speak of kickers, who score about a third of the points in the NFL, but only get a small fraction of the respect. It was Buddy Ryan, the hard-boiled coach, who once growled: kickers are like taxicabs. You can always go out and hire another one. Sure enough, this season, almost half the NFL teams have replaced their kickers at least once… But then, onto the field jogs Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens who cleaves the uprights with a mix of power and precision. The Ravens had a rough season, but Tucker is on a trajectory, end-over-end, to go down as perhaps the greatest NFL kicker there ever was… in turn elevating the entire position.

If there were one signature moment from the NFL this season, it might be this…

Detroit Lions 17, Baltimore Ravens 16. Three seconds left, Justin Tucker, the Ravens' 32-year-old kicker, lines up beyond midfield, beyond the tail of theLions' logo…

Announcer Greg Gumbel: This is for an NFL record 66 yards…

And, action…

Announcer Greg Gumbel: On its way…

Justin Tucker: I felt the thud of the ball, I knew it was gonna have a chance. But I didn't know for sure until I saw the ball hit the crossbar…

Announcer Greg Gumbel: It bounces off the crossbar and it's good!... Hahaha… Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!

Justin Tucker: I think that's when we all knew that we had just been a part of an historic moment.

John Harbaugh: Are you kidding me?

Note the reaction of his coach, John Harbaugh. Tucker's teammates were equally giddy.

Justin Tucker

What made it remarkable: for one, the sheer distance. By a matter of inches, the 66-yarder set a new NFL record for longest field goal ever. But also, since when have you heard this kind of swooning over a kicker?

John Harbaugh: We'll be talking about this forever… so proud of you, man…

John Harbaugh: He's the best ever. He's the best…

Jon Wertheim: Best ever?

John Harbaugh: Best that's ever done it.

John Harbaugh says it's not just because of Tucker's record-breaker in Detroit.

Jon Wertheim: What is his secret kicking sauce?

John Harbaugh: You know, he's a very talented guy; leg strength, accuracy. All the numbers are there. But to me, the biggest thing is just the way he approaches it. I mean, his demeanor, persona in the biggest moments, the biggest kicks, under the most pressure, that's what makes him the best ever.

Jon Wertheim: You sound fired up when you say that.

John Harbaugh: Well, I'm fired up that he's our kicker (laughs). Makes us a better football team.

Tucker weighs only 180 pounds but he's often rescued the ravens. Going into this weekend Tucker had made 57 straight field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Jon Wertheim: He wasn't drafted. He's scored more than a third (laugh) of the Ravens' points since he's gotten here…

John Harbaugh: Right.

Jon Wertheim: Is he worth a first-round pick today?

John Harbaugh: He is. Absolutely. He would be.

John Harbaugh

Here's the real kicker, as it were: across the NFL, more field goals are being made from longer distances with greater accuracy than ever. But then there are wacky Sundays like the one in October, when normally reliable kickers for the Packers and Bengals combined to miss five field goals in the last 10 minutes.

And the extra point, once almost automatic, has become more of an adventure since the NFL extended the distance in 2015.

All those games hinging on the smallest guys on the field, splitting or missing those two uprights? The outcome will depend as much on the mind as on the foot. Even for Justin Tucker, nerves come into play.

Justin Tucker: If you're not feeling just, like, a little something, like, you know, are you even really living? You know, that's part of the challenge of playing this position at this level is thinking about all that, processing it, compartmentalizing it, putting it away, and then still going out there and doing your job.

Tucker's teammate, 6'8" defensive lineman Calais Campbell, whose job includes blocking kicks, says he can detect fear in kickers when the game's on the line.

Calais Campbell

Calais Campbell: You know, it can be really good kickers, until a situation comes and they just – all that confidence goes away, you can see the nervousness in their eyes. And very few kickers have the ability to be able to handle that, that kinda pressure.

Jon Wertheim: You see that on the other side of the line?

Calais Campbell: Oh yeah, all the time…

NFL kicking titan Morten Andersen made 583 field goals over a 25-year career. Andersen says kickers have nowhere to hide.

Morten Andersen: We're very exposed. Our performance feedback is immediate. It's either good or bad.

Jon Wertheim: How much of this is mental?

Morten Andersen: I would say 90% of it is mental, and the last 10% is mental. (laughs)

Jon Wertheim: It's like Yogi Berra does kicking. You had a kick to go to the Super Bowl. 

Morten Andersen: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: Did you feel fear when you walked out?

Morten Andersen: No. Because I had in my mental rehearsals, the night before in the hotel, I-- I would do three or four scenarios. I would rehearse them in slow motion and real time. So I remember standing on the sideline, and all my teammates were on their knees. They were holding hands. And I thought to my-- I remember thinking to myself, you know, "They're not driving the car. I'm driving the car."

Morten Andersen

When Andersen drove the Atlanta Falcons into the Super Bowl in 1999, he was so sure he'd nailed his kick, he didn't even bother to watch. Andersen is the second-leading scorer in NFL history, behind another kicker, four-time Super Bowl winner Wdam Vinatieri… and yet.

Jon Wertheim: You're one of only two pure kickers in the Football Hall of Fame. How can that be?

Morten Andersen: It's a great injustice, one of the greatest injustices in the history of mankind. I'm kidding, a little bit…

Jon Wertheim: You guys are scoring a third of the points though. How can there be only two of you?

Morten Andersen: Correct, and if-- if the point of the game is to score more points than the other team, who's more important than the leading scorer on the football team?

Kickers have long been seen as something, well, foreign—literally—guys born in Europe with names like Gogolak and Stenerud. Maybe it was the barefoot kickers in the snow or Garo Yepremian's lone pass of his career, in the super bowl no less, that helped create a perception: kickers aren't real football players. And then there is another false perception: that kicking a football ain't all that difficult.

Jon Wertheim: You ever have teammates say "kicking a ball through uprights, how hard can that be?"

Morten Andersen: So every Saturday morning we had a walk through. And all the guys wanted to kick field goals. And I'm like, "Don't do it guys. This is not muscles (laugh) you're used to using."

Jon Wertheim: Anyone actually make the field goal when they weren't blowing out their knees?

Morten Andersen: It wasn't a pretty sight. And I was just like, "You guys are idiots (laugh). This is not gonna end well."

There are seldom back-up kickers in the NFL, so look what happened three weeks ago when Carolina Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez injured his leg in warmups. The team scrambled to find any player who could kick, holding field auditions on the spot. Not surprisingly, the Panthers didn't even try to kick a field goal or extra point that day. Then again, kickers are a special breed.

How many linebackers dare sing opera as a hobby? Justin Tucker was happy to belt out Ave Maria at a Baltimore Christmas concert a few years ago.

Jon Wertheim: We heard he's shy about his singing…

Calais Campbell: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah, very shy. I mean, he's the life of the party in the locker room every day

Jon Wertheim: Every day, you said?

Calais Campbell: Oh, every day.

Kickers avoid football's violence. They even practice on their own field. Sometimes not at all.

Jon Wertheim: We had an NFL kicker tell us, "All the players wanna be us during practice and none of the teammates wanna be us with three seconds left in the game." You're-- you're smiling when I…

Justin Tucker: It's because I've heard that (laughs) time and time again from, from my teammates over the years.

Jon Wertheim: You buy it?

Justin Tucker: And it's absolutely true. I mean, we have an obviously lighter workload. We're not hitting or getting hit. Our practices are much less strenuous than basically every single other person out here, you know, wearing a football uniform.

Connor Barth

Connor Barth kicked for four NFL teams over a 10-year career.

Connor Barth: I think people wanna be us during practice, because sometimes we sneak off from camp and play some golf and, you know, maybe hit Starbucks. I always say if you make your kicks, no one ever is gonna worry about you

Jon Wertheim: I think I misheard you. You-- you didn't really say that kickers sneak off during practice (LAUGH) to go play golf and go to Starbucks.

Connor Barth: I mean, you could only watch so much film kicking. Right? You don't have a playbook with 500 pages in it. So you got some downtime during the day.

But it's not all par threes and pumpkin spice latte. There is a real precision to kicking a field goal, an efficient three-man assembly line with the snapper and holder…

Jon Wertheim: How long does it take from the snap until you're booting that ball?

Justin Tucker: Typically 1.3 seconds, give or take, several hundredths.

Jon Wertheim: 1.3 seconds? That's it?

Justin Tucker: 1.3 seconds.

Jon Wertheim: If it's 1.4 what happens?

Justin Tucker: If it's 1.4, you run the risk of getting a kick blocked by an edge rush.

Jon Wertheim: So just a little bit of time, and someone else is putting their hand up and blocking that kick.

Justin Tucker: Exactly. You know, that muscle memory that gets developed throughout, you know, years of practice, that's what goes into those 1.3 seconds when they matter the most.

We were also surprised to learn that Tucker and his fellow kickers are striking a football unique to them.

Connor Barth: That's definitely a K-ball right there.

A K-ball, the k standing for kickers.

Connor Barth: You can't do too many crazy things but you wanna try to, like, mash the back of this ball and break in these seams as much as you can.

Justin Tucker: I can't go too deeply into the trade secrets that the measures our equipment guys go to, to prep these footballs for game day legally I should add. But there's a brush that has bristles on one side. And that's the only tool that you're allowed to use

The brush smoothes the sides of the ball where the kicker's foot makes impact.

Jon Wertheim: I don't think most fans realize that the ball that the quarterback's throwing with is different from than the one you're kicking with.

Connor Barth: No. I mean, a K-ball, quarterbacks do not use it. The rest of the position players do not use this ball.

Justin Tucker: The purpose of this ball is to, you know, send it to the moon with my foot. So anything that you can do to loosen up the leather so when my foot compresses into the ball, it explodes the other way in a way that, you know, this ball just simply would not.

Jon Wertheim: You talk about a sweet spot…

Justin Tucker: I try to pick out the dimples on the ball that I'm going to match up my foot to.

Jon Wertheim: Really? The specific dimples?

Justin Tucker: I, I try to.

Jon Wertheim: Wow. Oh geez.

Justin Tucker: It's a little easier said than done. So maybe an inch under the center of the ball. That's where I'm trying to match that bone coming off of my big toe on the top of my foot. I'm trying to match it up to about right here.

Jon Wertheim: Wow.

Jon Wertheim: Tell me about your footwear here…

Connor Barth let us in on more tribal secrets.

Connor Barth: I take like a machine and grind it down so that my front cleats are completely flat, that way when I swing through the ball it kind of glides through like almost like a golf club.

Jon Wertheim: This plants and this slides.

Connor Barth: This one slides through. This one is your plant shoe – that kind of, just catches everything so that you stop and you kick. 

Jon Wertheim: It's like two different garden tools.

Connor Barth: Yeah, that's pretty cool, it's…

Barth's shoes are not just mismatched, they're not even the same size…

Connor Barth: I wear a size 12. This is a 10 and a half.

Jon Wertheim: That's a size and a half smaller than what…

Connor Barth: My kicking shoe needs to be so much tighter than my regular. So it's pretty cool, but I think my foot's gotten smaller over the years because I've been jamming my foot into, a, almost two times smaller shoe.

We met Barth on his old high school football field in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was warming up by kicking 40-yard field goals with no step. Try that sometime.

He is a prime example of the kicker's vulnerability. Barth made 83% of his NFL field goals, but kicking for the Chicago Bears in November 2017, Barth attempted a game-tying field goal at Soldier Field with 8 seconds left.

Announcer: Not even close… wow… Holy Moses.

He walked off the field dejected. The Bears fired him the next day. And his career was over.

Jon Wertheim: Did you think your career was in jeopardy with one kick?

Connor Barth: Yeah, absolutely. I would like to have ended my career on a little better note, so… I've never seen more middle fingers in the crowd on the way out of the-- of the st… hey, Chicago Bears… hey, Chicago fans are the best fans. (laughs)

Now at age 35, he's thinking of making a comeback. Given the churn among NFL kickers, why not?

Connor Barth: You know, there's been some inconsistencies this year with kickers. We'll go watch some games and I'll have, you know, you'll see misses. And all my, all my buddies are texting, "You gotta go back." And…

Jon Wertheim: You're watching football on Sundays and thinking…

Connor Barth: Yeah, I could make some more field goals, yeah.

With our game clock down to its final ticking, we figured it was only fitting we summon Justin Tucker to take us out.

Justin Tucker: I'll ask you a question. Like, how amazing is that, you know, we're sitting here talking about kicking footballs, I'm having the loveliest time right now. It's just, you know, it's, it's just a wild ride.

Jon Wertheim: Through the uprights, man.

Justin Tucker: It's like that, like that old country song, "Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life." (laugh) And here we are just living life, man.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Jacqueline Williams. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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