Kicker is one of the NFL’s most thankless jobs, right up there with offensive linemen and long snappers. Only the truly elite ones get talked about for the good things they do; otherwise, if you’re being discussed by fans it’s because you messed up.
It’s why we find ourselves discussing Greg Zuerlein this week. The kicker missed a 43-yard field goal in the first quarter on Sunday, and it was quickly brought up again when the Cowboys ended up losing by three points. There was a similar sentiment when Zuerlein missed a 31-yard field goal against the Buccaneers in Week 1 before Dallas lost by two points.
The sentiment is an easy one to understand. Dallas lost to the Buccaneers by two, so if Zuerlein hits that chip shot then Dallas would have won by one. This week, if Zuerlein hits his field goal then the Cowboys go into overtime with a chance to win instead of losing by three. And so on.
The issue is that this line of thinking ignores the reality of football. Every single play is informed by what’s happened before that one. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s why film sessions and analytics are so important in this sport: no one actually thinks these tools will function as reliable predictors, but they are reliable indicators of what the best practice going forward is.
If Zuerlein makes that field goal on Sunday, the game would be tied at 3-3. The Cardinals’ strategy on offense then shifts, albeit slightly, because they’re not holding a lead. The same goes for the Cowboys. Does Arizona still run a fake punt from their own 36 if it’s a tie game? Maybe, but that definitely factors into the decision making, as it would in many other scenarios. To suggest that the rest of this game plays out exactly the same with a made field goal is just not realistic.
There’s also the glaring fact that almost any field goal attempt represents a failure on offense. Teams generally kick field goals because their offense failed to get a touchdown or first down. In the case of the Cowboys’ missed field goal this week, it was set up by a failed conversion on third-and-nine. It should’ve been third-and-four, but a false start backed them up.
Then there was an apparent miscommunication between Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper on third down. It looked as if Cooper ended his route earlier than Prescott anticipated, and it could easily have moved the chains if the pass connected. If that happened, the Cowboys have first down in the red zone. Instead, it’s a missed field goal attempt, and all the ire goes to Zuerlein while Prescott, Cooper, and Tyler Biadasz (the false starter) are all off the hook.
Let’s play the ‘if game’ again. If Dallas converts that third down, and if they score a touchdown later on the drive, they’re now up 7-3 and have the lead. Zuerlein’s field goal only ties the game, but a successful third down conversion offers the possibility of taking a lead. The Cowboys lost significantly more chances to win the game on that third down play than they did on the missed field goal.
None of this absolves Zuerlein, though. He failed his job just as Prescott, Cooper, and Biadasz did on the prior play. You want your kicker to be reliable, and Zuerlein just hasn’t been reliable this year. He’s made the ninth-most field goals this year but is 24th in field goal percentage. His five missed extra points are also the most in the NFL.
It would be alarming if it were just Zuerlein, but it’s not. Only four kickers have hit all of their extra points this year, and two of them are near the bottom of the NFL in PAT attempts relative to games played. And of the 16 kickers with 30 or more field goal attempts on the year, just six of them are hitting on 90% or more.
Those six kickers are Jake Elliott, Dustin Hopkins, Matt Gay, Daniel Carlson, Nick Folk, and Justin Tucker. Elliott has seen all but three of his attempts come inside the 50-yard range; Hopkins was cut by Washington earlier this year for missing too many extra points; Carlson was cut by the Vikings in 2018 for missing several game-winners before catching on with the Raiders; Folk has been a journeyman kicker with a varied track record; Gay was extremely unreliable each of the last two years; Tucker is the greatest kicker in the NFL right now, and possibly ever.
In short, kickers miss field goals all the time. Missed kicks are like head coaches mismanaging the clock or receivers dropping passes. It happens, and it’s never an ideal outcome, but they’re rarely the reason for a team losing a game. Most times, missed kicks can be overcome in a variety of other ways, too.
Unless you’re the Ravens and have Tucker, odds are good you’ll be missing a few kicks here and there. It’s another great reason why teams should settle for field goals at a lower rate than they currently do.
The good news for the Cowboys is that while Zuerlein isn’t Tucker, he’s still pretty clutch. On field goal attempts that could either tie the game or give Dallas the lead, Zuerlein is 10/12 this year. Not many other kickers can say the same thing, which underscores Zuerlein’s value to this team.
Maybe the Cowboys could find a kicker on the free agency pile who hits at a higher rate - that’s a big maybe - but they’d be hard-pressed to find one who comes up big in the biggest moments. For now, that’s a trade-off the Cowboys are willing to accept.