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. Minnesota’s rookie Daniel Carlson missed three field goal attempts, including two 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 points and two field goals, including one in the final seconds of the game, which helped hand the Browns another inconceivable defeat in a game they led most of the time but still lost at New Orleans. The Browns have not won in more than 630 days.

In the coming days, the Vikings and Browns will no doubt devote a lot more time to figuring out who should be handling the kicking duties. They might even give it as much attention 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).

In fact, expect the eight-year veteran kicker Dan Bailey, recently cut by the Dallas Cowboys, one of the most accurate kickers in N.F.L. history, to be fielding calls from the Vikings and Browns. Or at least he should be.

Minnesota, who six months ago gave Kirk Cousins $84 million to play quarterback, seemed poised to reap the benefits of that decision on Sunday. 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, who 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 in the second quarter.

It only got worse for Minnesota. At first, Vikings fans were undoubtedly energized to see Cousins deftly move the Vikings down the field yet again in the waning seconds of overtime. Soon, the Vikings, who have a tormenting history of crucial missed field goals 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.”

When asked if the Vikings would be in the market for a new kicker, Minnesota Coach Mike Zimmer answered: “It’s too early. We’ll evaluate everything.”

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

Last week against Pittsburgh, he had a last-second, overtime kick 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 nine-point lead into the fourth quarter, a lead they built despite a missed extra point attempt and a missed field goal by Gonzalez. The Saints rallied for two touchdowns and a two-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 was 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 game-tying 52-yard field goal attempt by Gonzalez 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 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 1/175th of the roster payroll.

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

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