Kickers, like offensive linemen, usually toil in anonymity until they do something wrong. Most casual observers of football do not notice when a linemen makes a good block, but you can bet they will be all over him when he false starts, holds, or gets beat by a speed rushing defensive end. Kickers get some glory when they make kicks to win championships (Vinatieri) and are vituperated when they have a historic miss (Norwood), but most fans only remember them as 'that little european guy, ya you know he used to kick, what was his name?'
In the old days of the NFL, position players often handled the kicking duties (and many players played offense and defense). George Blanda was an All-Pro quarterback as well as a part-time kicker, punter, and linebacker. Even players who played only offense also played multiple positions. Charley Trippi played halfback (running back) and quarterback. But lo, what hath Adam Smith wrought? In his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith speculated that specialization, or the division of labor, was the dynamic engine of economic progress. The concentration of workers on their singular or limited subtasks should lead to greater skill and greater productivity on their particular subtasks than would be achieved by the same number of workers each carrying out the original broad task. The example Smith used was the manufacturing of pins. However, this theory can easily be expanded to include both more modern manufacturing (Henry Ford's assembly line) and the game of football. When the NFL allowed rosters to expand in the late 1950's, specialization quickly followed. As with most changes, it was slow but steady. By the mid-1970's kickers had become what they are today; specialists who perform come in for 10 or fewer plays per game. Of course, specialization also allowed for other players to focus on one position too. Sometimes specialization is so great that some kickers only kick field goals. Yesterday's hero Mike Vanderjagt, doesn't even kickoff. He just kicks field goals. Specialization allowed linebackers to play linebacker, running backs to play running back, and so on. Of course, some players also play special teams, but the days of 'iron man' or 2-way football is over. Offensive players were also classified into a certain position. Long gone are the days where offensive players spend significant time at several positions. Antwaan Randle-El will occasionally line up in the backfield for Pittsburgh, but this is primarily on trick-plays, and is not a regular routinized occurrence. Since kickers are now specialists and free to practice only one facet of the game, kicking should improve. It has. In 1970, kickers made 59.4% of their field goals and 96.9% of their extra points. In 2004, kickers made 80.8% of their field goals and 99.2% of their extra points. Thats a pretty marked improvement. However, when the fortunes of 53 men come down to one kick by a guy who plays 10 or fewer plays per game, my heart goes out (as much as it possibly can to millionaires playing a game) when he -stoinks- the kick. You have one job. Kick the ball. Yeah, I know its hard. I couldn't do it. But, do you think that blocking lightning-quick 250 pound defensive ends is easy? Or how about reading coverages and throwing pinpoint passes, is that easy? What about covering guys man-to-man downfield all by yourself, is that easy? Football is not an easy game to play at the professional level. If it was, I'd be playing. So when those guys put you in position to win, how about knocking down the kick?
Here's some random games I've noted this season where kickers have brought it real weak:
Week 12: New York Giants at Seattle: Jay Feely missed 3 field goals, a 40 yarder, a 54 yarder, and a 45 yarder that would have won the game for Big Blue.
Week 14: Kansas City at Dallas: Down 3 with 10 seconds left, Trent Green hits Dante Hall for 34 yards and gets it down to the Dallas 24. Kansas City uses their last time out, and Lawrence Tynes -stoinks- a potential game-tying 41 yard field goal.
Houston at Tennessee: Kris Brown misses a a game-tying 31 yard field goal in the final minutes. Worst...miss...ever.
Week 17: Houston at San Francisco: With the game tied at 17, in a meaningless game (except for draft position), Texans kicker Kris Brown does what he does best, missing a 31 yard field goal. The 49ers go on to win in OT.
Divisional Playoffs: Pittsburgh at Indianapolis: The aforementioned Mr. Vanderjagt missed a 46 yard attempt that could have sent the game into OT. And it's not the first time he has screwed things up for Manning. Remember 2000?
These kicking shenanigans are not limited to the NFL by any means. I might have made it all the way through the Orange Bowl if either Penn State of Florida State's kickers had made some field goals. And speaking of Florida State, Bobby Bowden might have about 60 national titles if his kickers could make field goals against Miami. Anyway, to sum things up: you are either paid handsomely, or go to school for free (maybe both if you play for Ohio State) to do one thing and one thing only, so kick the damn ball through the uprights.