I assume NFL kickers will make every kick. The Falcons’ Matt Bryant, the one I watch the most, comes awfully close. At 43, he missed one field-goal try this season. His career FG percentage is 86.2, which seems to me the signature of all-time great. Then I checked: Statistically, he’s not even in the top five. He’s No. 8.
Of the seven ahead of him, six are still kicking. Thirteen of the top 20 are active. Eighteen of those 20 began their pro careers in the 21st century; the exceptions are Mike Vanderjagt, who started in 1998, and Adam Vinatieri, whose rookie year was 1996.
We live in a time where pro kickers almost never miss. When they do, it’s news. When a playoff game ends with a kick missing after hitting the hand of an opposing lineman, the left goalpost and the crossbar, it’s a bona fide moment. But here we note that Cody Parkey, who authored the already-legendary Double Doink, is No. 21 on the career list of FG percentage.
Parkey kicks for the Bears, and that – working outdoors in the Windy City with the wind whipping off Lake Michigan – is tough. I know a guy who knows. Bears. His name is Kevin Butler. He went to Redan High. He played at Georgia. His 60-yarder to beat Clemson in 1984 is in the top five of Bulldogs moments. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Butler spent 11 seasons with Chicago and two more with Arizona. He said this week: “What professional position demands 87 and 93 percent success? I love hockey, but if you score on two out of 24 shots, that’s pretty good. There’s never been a pitcher who’s at 90 percent striking people out. We’ve created a monster, they’re so good. The Bears cut Robbie Gould. He has since made 82 of 85 field goals.”
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As noted, Butler was rather good. His career NFL percentage was 73.4, which puts him 85th all-time. That’s ahead of Jan Stenerud, who kicked from the ’60s into the ’80s and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s 109th at 66.8 percent. Morten Andersen? Former Saint, former Falcon, also a Hall of Famer? He’s 61st at 79.7, and he spent all but three of his 25 seasons kicking for dome teams.
Back to Parkey, who missed five kicks this season by hitting a goalpost – four times in one game! He career percentage of 83.9 far outstrips some of the most illustrious toes in NFL annals. Said Butler: “It’s unbelievable what they do today. I think of people like myself, like Morten Andersen, like Mick Luckhurst. We’d have been cut.”
The art of kicking has become something approaching a science. Kickers do nothing but kick, in tandem with their long snappers and holders, all the livelong day. “Talk to some of the older guys,” Butler said. “They didn’t have special-teams coaches. George Blanda (the AFL legend who was also a quarterback) told me, ‘I’d be lucky if I got three snaps (as a kicker) in practice.’” (Blanda’s career percentage – 52.4.)
Butler was a rookie in the Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” year. He missed three field-goal tries in his first playoff game. He got lucky, though. First, his team won. Second, he wasn’t nearly the most forlorn kicker that blustery day. “We got the New York Giants in Chicago,” he said. “It was so freaking cold and so windy, (Giants punter) Sean Landeta whiffed on his kick. I missed three field goals and got nowhere near the grief he did.”
Then: “(Bears coach Mike) Ditka was great with me. He stood by me. He knew I always prepared. But a 45-yarder in a 40-mph wind, who knows where it’s going to end up? … Robbie had one kick in Chicago, a 45-yarder that almost went out of bounds.”
Then: “Morten Andersen told me once, ‘If I’d been in Chicago, I’d have never stayed in the league.”
Then: “When the schedule came out, I was the one guy who read it backward. Late in the season, I wanted to be on the road or have an indoor game at Minnesota. When we’d stay in a hotel for home games, you’d get up and throw the curtains open and go, ‘Holy crap.’ ”
By Chicago standards, the conditions on the day of Parkey’s slap/clank/clank weren’t awful – 39 degrees at kickoff, winds of 12 mph. The kick was from 43 yards. An NFL kicker should make that, even outdoors. (Bryant has tried 26 kicks of 40-49 yards over the past three years. He has made 25. To be fair, none came at Soldier Field.) Parkey’s miss was his 11th of the season – eight field goals, three PATs. Only the Steelers’ Chris Boswell, with 12, had more.
By midweek, Butler had done “maybe 20” radio interviews with Chicago media types. The subject was … well, guess. Even if Parkey is 21st all-time in field-goal percentage, even if he’s signed to a four-year contract due to pay him $15 million, the raging expectation is that he has doinked his last goalpost as a Bear.
Butler: “Chicago’s tough. They need to let it die down and think about it. In a certain way, it might be good for him to move on. Next time he hits an upright, they’re going to have to get security. They had to have security take him out of the stadium Sunday and follow him home.”
In his post-NFL life, Butler has served as a kicking tutor for Georgia. (His son, Drew, is the punter for the Arizona Cardinals.) Kevin Butler relinquished that position after last season, but he has a grasp on the younger generation of booters. Physically, they’re all top-notch. What makes a big-time kicker – a Gould, a Bryant, a Vinatieri – is how they handle the failures.
“These guys are good,” Butler said. Then, referencing his kicking mentor at Georgia: “Coach (Bill Hartman) used to say it was the art of the jeweler. When you cut a diamond, you can’t mess up. You do it the same way every time. But it comes down to what’s between the ears.”
Then: “Kirby (Smart, Georgia’s coach) would ask me to look at film, and I’m not sure he liked my answer. I said, ‘Film doesn’t tell me anything.’ I’ve got to be talking to the kid, hear him kick the ball, feel the thump.”
Then: “I think the world of Rodrigo (Blankenship, the Bulldogs’ bespectacled folk-hero kicker). He’s got a big future. His challenge is mental. Physically, he can do it with anybody. But kicking comes down to processing misses and forgetting the makes. Because it’s always about the next kick.”
A final Butler thought, partially about Parkey but about all kickers: “You can’t be thinking, ‘Don’t hit the goal post.’ Because if you do, you’ll hit the goal post.”