NFL HALFWAY: Strong as ever, kickers remain a key to success
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kai Forbath last season, he’d gone 10½ months without kicking in a meaningful game.
Having emerged as the most viable candidate from the tryout group assembled amid Blair Walsh’s persistent struggles, Forbath was the favored option when the Vikings made the change. He’d diligently kept up his kicking and training during the hiatus, of course, but there was no way he could actually create game-like atmospheres and conditions in preparation for the return to live action.
Forbath stepped in and performed like he’d never missed a turn. He’s not the only one in the NFL fraternity who has done so.
“It’s tough coming straight in and having to play a few days after your tryout,” Forbath said, “but that’s part of the job.”
In 15 games for the Vikings since his arrival, Forbath has made all but one of his 37 field goal attempts. That’s the best rate in the league over that span.
“Fortunately for me it wasn’t my first time doing that, so I had a little experience coming in and doing it right away,” said Forbath, who’d been released by Washington after the first game of the 2015 season before joining New Orleans six weeks later.
Forgetting for a moment the perplexing recurrence of missed extra points, Forbath has been an unquestionable success coming straight from the street. Rookie Harrison Butker has also filled in seamlessly for AFC West leader Kansas City, which lost Cairo Santos to groin trouble three games in. Another rookie, Jake Elliott, has been holding his own for NFL-best Philadelphia after a hip injury waylaid Caleb Sturgis in the season opener. The 35-year-old Mike Nugent has fared well over the last two games for Dallas after stalwart Dan Bailey hurt his groin.
“Those guys are always working out, always prepared, always ready for any type of workout that could help them make a team down the line,” Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “You can tell the guys, when they come to workouts, if they haven’t been working out a lot lately because they just don’t go out and perform very well. Especially kicking and punting, even snapping, too: It’s like golf. It’s like any kind of specialty type of sport. You’ve got to do it a lot. You have to continually work on that if you’re going to be good at. Especially for a workout: You might get called on a Monday for a workout on Tuesday.”
Incumbents around the league have been thriving, too. Aside from the longer 33-yard distance for extra points, there’s never been a better time in NFL history to be a kicker. There are so many artificial surfaces in the NFL’s stadiums and lifelong opportunity to hone their craft and learn the best techniques.
“The science of it has changed a lot. When these older guys were kicking back in the day, they were kicking the ball just like a soccer ball. Now guys are going to camps when they’re young,” Forbath said. “It has gotten pretty technical.”
According to research by SportRadar, the league-wide field goal rate is 83.6 percent. That’s slightly down from the 2013 peak, which was 86.5 percent, but it’s a marked improvement from 15 years ago, when NFL kickers combined to make 77.5 percent of their field goals.
From long range, they’re as on-target as ever. The league-wide rate from 50-plus yards is 69 percent, which is on pace to establish an NFL record. In 2013, that number was 67.1 percent. In 2002? Only 51.8 percent of 50-plus yard attempts were successful.
Forbath and Elliott are two of six kickers in the league this season who have made four or more 50-yarders.
According to the Pro Football Reference database , the five most accurate field goal kickers in league history are all active: Bailey, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, Forbath, Buffalo’s Steven Hauschka, and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski.
That would explain why Gostkowski was so upset about missing two of six field goal tries in his team’s last game, despite a victory.
“I get mad. It’s going to bother me for a week, probably two weeks, but that’s just part of the game,” Gostkowski said. “If you can’t deal with it, then you probably shouldn’t be here.”
Keeping an even keel amid the seven missed extra points in 30 attempts for the Vikings has helped Forbath, for sure. He’s 21 for 22 on field goals, tied for the second-most makes in the NFL.
“He went through his up and downs in his career early and seems to have found his groove here,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “It’s a pretty good, comforting feeling to know that when your guy goes out there to kick the field goals that he’s got a 97 percent chance of making it.”