It's hardly a coincidence that the weirdest pass ever thrown in the history of the Super Bowl was launched by — who else? — a kicker.
It came near the end of the big game in 1973, with the Miami Dolphins already leading 14-0 and looking to add a field goal to put the game out of reach. Instead, Washington Redskins defenders poured into the backfield and blocked the kick, sending the ball bounding backwards. There it was scooped up by a 5-foot-7 immigrant from Cyprus named Garo Yepremian, who soon after arriving watched a few minutes of a game on TV and decided on the spot the way to succeed in America was to play professional football. On the run for his life at that moment, with the ball in his hands and only a vague idea of what to do next, Yepremian threw it up for grabs — a peace offering to the pack of wolves pursuing him — then batted it into the air a second time after the first one wound up back in his arms. It was eventually corralled by Redskin safety Mike Bass, who returned it unhindered up the left sideline for a touchdown.
The last player to wave him on by was — who else? — Yepremian. That feat became the jumping-off point for the movie, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," and was immortalized in a ditty dubbed "The Lonesome Kicker" by comedian Adam Sandler.
Kicking "can be so very scary," Sandler sang, "especially, if the returner breaks on through. I'm the only guy on the playing field left to tackle him and I don't want to get hurt, so I pretend to tie my shoe."
All these years later, too many fans, and even some teammates, can't shake that image from their mind. They still regard kickers as do-nothings and aliens, at worst, or necessary evils at best, which is strange when you consider the name of the game.
Their misses don't explain it, not even the misses with the spotlight up full, the way Billy Cundiff did in last weekend's AFC championship — wide left from 32 yards out — with the clock ticking down on the Baltimore Ravens' season. Every player whiffs, or blinks, or blows an assignment on occasion, sometimes when it matters every bit as much.
Linemen lose their grip, quarterbacks slip, receivers drop passes, running backs and return men go down from glancing blows while an open field stares them in the face. But nobody keeps stats on those missed opportunities handy, or asks the perpetrators whether they intend to jump out of a window anytime soon.
Same with defenders. It's easy to find out who led the team in tackles, sacks and interceptions, etc. But only their coaches know how many more they missed. The rest of us don't learn that number until they get cut or traded, which happens every so often even to superstars like Adam Vinatieri and to solid ones like Cundiff a lot. At this same time last year, Cundiff was celebrating his first selection to the Pro Bowl with a Hawaiian vacation. But he never kids himself about job security. He's kicked for nine different teams in his 10 NFL seasons — four in Dallas where he started, three in Baltimore, and rarely more than a few months at any of the stops in between.
"You're only a few plays away from being on the street, looking for another job," said Stephen Gostkowski, who inherited Vinatieri's spot and will kick for the Patriots when they play the Giants in the Super Bowl next Sunday.
Small wonder, then, that few players on their teams ever bother to get close to the kicker. Some won't stand next to them on the sideline or eat lunch at the same table. They're surprised to see kickers in the weight room, wondering aloud why they even bother to work out. Usually, the only teammates who befriend them are accomplices — the punter, who often doubles as the holder, and the long-snapper — and perhaps only because their fates are so intertwined. Otherwise, kickers would be even more alone.
"We just had our lockers moved in here to show you guys that we're a part of the team," punter Zoltan Mesko joked with reporters in the Patriots clubhouse earlier this week.
"But really, we're all the way back there," he added, gesturing toward a room off to the side. "This is just for this week so you guys wouldn't make a big story out of it."
It isn't the shoes, either. Some kickers have gone barefoot, one had no toes, and laugh at the dainty boots they wear if you want. Just know that Tom Brady and Eli Manning would both show up for the Super Bowl in fuzzy pink ballet slippers if those helped them complete passes at the same rate that Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham — the league's lowest-rated kicker last season at 74.2 percent — converted his field-goal tries. The simple fact is that kickers do their job — put foot to ball — consistently better than anyone else on the team.
So it's hardly coincidence, either, that every one of the top 25 scorers in NFL history is a kicker. Or that only one, Norwegian-born Jan Stenerud, has crossed the threshold since the Pro Football Hall of Fame first opened its doors first in 1963.
Why so little love?
"Maybe," Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan mused, "because it's a sport we think and talk about mostly in terms of contact and turf, like big hits and big linemen wrestling in the trenches all game. Then out trots this 5-foot-10,190-pound guy who can render everything that came before totally meaningless.
"To some people," he added, "that seems all out of whack."
So there's that, too.
But don't underestimate the role history played in getting today's kickers off on the wrong foot.
No position benefited more from the second wave of specialization that swept over the game during the 1960s, nearly two decades after the first, when enough World War II veterans returned to bulk up rosters and ease the need for two-way players. And like every other specialty, kicking has advanced by leaps and bounds since, thanks to the combination of bigger athletes and better training, equipment and techniques, all of it backed by the kind of money, resources and attention to detail once reserved for America's space program. But at its dawn, the modern kicking game seemed somehow unfair, not to mention unmanly and even un-American, feeding the undercurrents of resentment stirred by the fight between the established NFL and upstart AFL for the soul of the game.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a few kickers popped up in the decidedly offensive-minded AFL and began sneaking up on the ball from the side, then using the whole of their instep to drive it. They were normal-sized guys with foreign-sounding names, like Gogolak and Stenerud, that hinted at backgrounds steeped in soccer. Worse, they trotted onto the field like soloists in spotless uniforms, leaving little doubt where they spent most of the 60 minutes while the hand-to-hand combat raged. But there was no denying the results; those were eye-popping.
In the NFL, meanwhile, defense still dominated and field goals remained an afterthought. In 1965, the Giants attempted 25 and made just four, including a stretch where backup QB Bob Timberlake went 0-for-15 and somehow hung on to the job. That's because Timberlake, like the other players who handled the kicking chores, had full-time jobs, too. Some were running backs, like the Packers' Paul Hornung, or tackles, like the Browns' Lou Groza, who became specialists after their first career path was blocked by advancing age. They were already in the huddle when it came time to kick, and just as muddy as everyone else in the frame. They approached the ball directly from behind, and used only the toe of their boot to propel it — the way their predecessors had since the demise of the drop-kick some three decades earlier.
Some of that hostility lingers even today, though no one expressed it better than former Lions tackle-turned-wiseguy Alex Karras did a few years after the leagues merged. He was already retired from football and working as a commentator for ABC by the time sidewinders transformed both the position and the game's offensive strategies. So many more field goals were being attempted — and made — that purists argued for a while about little else than how best to cut that number down. Karras famously came up with this simple solution: "Tighten immigration laws."
In the intervening years, the talent pool over here got wider and deeper. The same kids who once watched the Gogolak brothers and Yepremian went on to play soccer and attended football camps that specialized in kicking, with countless trips to the weight room squeezed in between. They got more repetitions, better coaching and much better pay. You can still pick out the kickers in most team pictures with just a glance, but few have accents and the best ones draw salaries that rival many of their teammates. They've become so good from ever-lengthening distances in all kinds of conditions — league-wide, the average conversion rate was 83 percent last season — that the U.S. Postal Service wouldn't need bailing out if its couriers completed their appointed rounds with anywhere near the same success. For kickers, though, that's just the starting point.
"The expectation has changed in the league," said Detroit kicker Jason Hanson. "If they put you out there, you're supposed to make it. All of a sudden, a 48-yarder has become like from 32. As a kicker, I'm like, 'wait a minute; this is way different.'"
And therein lies the rub.
"They've gotten so good," Horrigan said, "that with a few exceptions, most of the misses come when kickers are asked to do something that's simply beyond their physical capabilities. Once upon a time, coaches didn't give ridiculously long field-goal attempts a second thought. But now, more and more, they approach them like, 'If ever you had a miracle in your leg, let it be this one.' And guess who gets left holding the bag?"
It should come as little surprise that Horrigan, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. and worked as a sports writer there before winding up at the Hall, still holds a soft spot in his heart for much-maligned Bills kicker Scott Norwood. Norwood's kick in the waning moments of the 1991 Super Bowl might be the most famous miss in the game's history — wide right, from 47 yards out — and all these years later, he still gets blamed for setting the trend that would see the Bills lose the next three Super Bowls as well.
"Anyone who'd followed Scott's career would have known that 47 was five yards or so beyond his range, and always had been," Horrigan lamented. "What nobody ever asks is why, with everything the coaching staff knew at the time, the offense couldn't get him five yards closer?"