With N.F.L. Kickers, You Get What You Pay For

With N.F.L. Kickers, You Get What You Pay For


The player payroll of an N.F.L. team is about $175 million. But many teams pay the place-kicker on the roster roughly the league minimum salary, which is often less than $1 million annually.

So what? To most fans, it seems like an easy job.

Try telling that to the Minnesota Vikings or the Cleveland Browns. On Sunday, each team surely wished it had loosened the purse strings to pay for a veteran established kicker instead of the young low-cost versions they put in uniform.

The failures of the Minnesota and Cleveland kickers on Sunday were a flabbergasting cavalcade of end-over-end footballs spinning wide left and right of the goal posts. The Minnesota rookie Daniel Carlson missed three field-goal attempts, two of them in overtime, and cost the Vikings a critical victory in a game at Green Bay that ended in a tie. Cleveland’s second-year kicker, Zane Gonzalez, missed two key extra-point attempts and two field-goal attempts, including one in the final seconds of the game, which helped hand the Browns another inconceivable defeat in a game at New Orleans that they had led most of the way. The Browns have not won in more than 630 days.

By Monday, the Vikings had released Carlson and the Browns had cut their ties with Gonzalez, who may have been playing through a groin injury. The Vikings will at least do the right thing and sign the eight-year veteran Dan Bailey, according to multiple news reports. In a cost-cutting move, Bailey, the second most accurate kicker in N.F.L. history, was surprisingly let go by the Cowboys on Sept. 1.

But the Vikings’ finally coming to their senses and realizing that the more pricey Bailey was a better choice than Carlson will not get them back a victory that could have helped them when the playoff chase — or home field advantage in the postseason — is sorted out in late December. Bailey’s contract is likely to cost the Vikings as much as $3 million this week. How much would the Vikings, who are Super Bowl contenders, pay in the postseason to host a conference championship game instead of playing it on the road? But money won’t be a factor — no amount of it will get them back the victory lost on Sunday.

Maybe next season, Minnesota will give as much attention to who gets the kicking job as they would a debate about who should be the sixth linebacker on the depth chart (who often makes more money than the kicker as well).

As for the Browns, it’s not clear they have learned their lesson at all. To replace Gonzalez, they signed another rookie kicker, Greg Joseph. But hey, at least they’re saving a few bucks while stumbling through another winless season.

On Sunday, Minnesota, who six months ago gave Kirk Cousins $84 million to play quarterback, seemed poised to reap the benefits of that decision. Cousins, in a spirited duel with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, passed for four touchdowns and 425 yards and, with the game tied, moved the Vikings into position for a 49-yard field goal about halfway through overtime. But Carlson, whom the Vikings got for a $248,000 signing bonus and a small raise over the overall rookie minimum salary, booted the football well right of the goal posts. He also missed a field-goal attempt in the second quarter.

It only got worse for Minnesota. At first, Vikings fans were undoubtedly energized to see Cousins deftly move the team down the field yet again in the waning seconds of overtime. Soon, the Vikings, who have a tormenting history of crucial missed field-goal attempts that ruined promising seasons, were in position for a 35-yard field goal that would win the game as overtime expired.

No kick from any distance is automatic, which is too often forgotten, but surely it was not asking too much of Carlson to make one of three attempts on the day, especially from an average distance like 35 yards. But Carlson, an all-Southeastern Conference selection as a collegian at Auburn but playing in just his second N.F.L. game, sailed another attempt well right of his target.

“It feels terrible,” Carlson said later in the locker room. “Obviously, I let my team down.”

Monday, Minnesota Coach Mike Zimmer was asked why the team had released Carlson.

Zimmer replied: “Did you see the game?”

While Cleveland might not have been playing as pivotal a game, the Browns’ kicking problems Sunday were in almost every way even harder to watch.

For a second consecutive week, Gonzalez, who was also earning just above the league minimum, failed to help the Browns get their first win since Dec. 24, 2016.

Last week against Pittsburgh, his last-second overtime kick was blocked in a game that ended in a tie. At the end of that contest, the look on Cleveland Coach Hue Jackson’s face was heart-rending. You could see that an astonished Jackson was thinking: What else do we have to do to win?

By the end of Sunday’s game in New Orleans, even more sadly, Jackson no longer looked incredulous or shellshocked.

The Browns took a 9-point lead into the fourth quarter, a lead they had built despite a missed extra-point attempt and a missed field-goal attempt by Gonzalez. The Saints rallied for two touchdowns and a 2-point conversion to take an 18-12 lead. But with less than 90 seconds left in the fourth quarter, on a desperate fourth-down-and-5, Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor lofted a majestic pass roughly 60 yards down the middle of the field.

The ball hung in the air for more than three seconds until Antonio Callaway reached out and snatched it with his fingertips in the end zone for a tumbling, stunning 47-yard touchdown pass. The Browns’ bench erupted in celebration.

Until the Gonzalez extra-point kick that would have put the Browns up by a point hooked left of the goal posts.

New Orleans took a 21-18 lead on a field goal with 26 seconds remaining in the game. Improbably, Taylor again led the woebegone Browns up field smartly and quickly, leading to a 52-yard field-goal attempt by Gonzalez that would have tied the game with eight seconds left.

It was never on line: wide right.

“It’s on me, 100 percent,” Gonzalez said afterward. “We were so close to that win, and it’s been so long. I just let everybody down.”

Being a place-kicker in the N.F.L. is a hard job, especially in the final seconds of a game. That’s why the accomplished, experienced kickers like Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, who makes about $4.2 million annually, get paid about eight times what the rookie kickers make. All N.F.L. general managers need to work harder to identify the very best performers at such a demanding and essential job and keep them around by paying them more than one-175th of the roster payroll.

That might prevent more nightmarish outcomes like the ones the Vikings and Browns endured on Sunday.



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