The Life of a Kicker: Controversy and Catastrophe

JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

UC Davis kickers Matt Blair and Max O’Rourke share thoughts on new rules, big misses

Kicking in the NFL has always been a difficult, high pressure job. As the league advances towards a future where player safety is the priority, many phases of football, specifically kicking, have become increasingly complex and difficult.

Prior to the beginning of this season, the NFL Competition Committee made two significant changes to the structure of an onside kick: “The kickoff team must have five players on each side of the ball and cannot line up more than one-yard from the restraining line.”

Previously, players attempting to recover the onside kick could start five yards away from the ball, allowing them to get a running start. These players often would be heavily overloaded to one side, sometimes even stacking one side of the field with eight players, which is now illegal as well.

Many fans and pundits poured on criticism when the rule was initially passed in May 2018, holding the notion that the onside kick, at least this season, would be “virtually dead.” But were they actually correct?

Ten years ago in the 2009 season, the onside kick recovery rate was 26 percent. Throughout the entire 2017 regular season and postseason, 13 of 60 onside kicks were recovered, equating to 21.7 percent.

Although that drop in recovery rate was not exactly appealing to fans who were looking for an exciting play, the plummet of recovery percentage this year will make football enthusiasts cringe. Through the divisional round, out of 53 onside kicks attempted this year, only four have been converted, or 7.5 percent. Lo and behold, critics of the rule change knew exactly what they were talking about, as the chance of the kicking team recovering an onside kick is now slim to none.

UC Davis punter and kicker Matt Blair feels as though the new rule changes take away the capability of a team to come back and win a game.

“I understand the players’ safety aspect of it,” Blair said. “You’re trying to reduce the concussions, but I honestly don’t think five yards makes a big difference whether someone is going to get a concussion or not, so I think they should move it back so teams are more successful getting onside kicks.”

Even once a team recovers an improbable onside kick at the end of the game, the kicker still has to make a field goal the majority of the time. No matter the distance, game-winning field goals always seem harder to make than regular ones. Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey became a victim of this cruel reality on Jan. 6, when he missed a potentially game-winning kick against the Philadelphia Eagles. Many blamed the entire loss solely on his miss, in spite of the fact that Eagles player Treyvon Hester tipped the ball.

UC Davis placekicker Max O’Rourke said he understood the immediate outcry of frustration and blame.

“As a kicker, you’re really only out there six or seven times in a whole game really, if even that many times might be a lot,” O’Rourke said. “But when you’re out there everything is highlighted, so your mistakes are way more highlighted than others.”

Some fans, however, let their anger spiral out of control. Cody Parkey received an onslaught of hate and even death threats.

“I don’t think the hate is totally warranted,” O’Rourke said. “Given that one, it was blocked, and also, that he had made three field goals and [the Bears] wouldn’t have even been in the game had it not been for him.”

O’Rourke also noted, however, that he understands the passion many fans have for their team.

Blair related the situation to the universal norms that kickers constantly live by.

“There’s a certain aspect of just being human where you can’t be perfect,” Blair said. “So [Parkey] doesn’t deserve all the hate, but he doesn’t deserve no hate either. If you miss a kick, there’s always going to be too much [hate], but when you make it, you get too much praise, so it goes both ways. People think you’re a superhero when you make the game-winning kick, but want to put you on the stake when you miss, so there’s a dichotomy there.”

Blair wrapped up his thoughts by saying that he believed Parkey handled the miss well, “He accepted the responsibility of the missed kick as well as he possibly could, which was impressive and is a good lesson for young people.”

Written by: AJ Seymour –– sports@theaggie.org