Commissioner Roger Goodell has suggested it, and so it will surely some day be: the extra point is not long for the NFL world. Goodell told the NFL Network on Monday, “I believe we had five missed extra points this year out of 1,200 some odd [tries]. So it’s a very small fraction of the play, and you want to add excitement with every play.”
What formerly presented at least a shade of a challenge has become automatic. In 1932, NFL kickers made less than 70% of their extra-point tries; in 2013, NFL kickers made more than 99.5% of their extra-point tries. Only one kicker since 2000 has missed more than two tries in a season (Kris Brown for the 2001 Steelers). Meanwhile, in the same time frame, the league’s kickers have combined for 253 perfect seasons on PATs. And the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski once broke his arm on an extra-point play. Abolish ’em! Right?
Not so fast, says Morten Andersen, who kicked for 25 seasons in New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Kansas City and Minnesota, and in the process became the league’s all-time leading scorer. (Between 1982 and 2007, he missed but 10 of his 859 extra-point tries.) “It’s the natural culmination of a scoring play — the cross of the t, the dot over the i. It gave me a chance to go out there and do my thing.”
In the past 50 years of professional football, the quality (and, with it, the importance) of placekicking has swelled. Teams once selected their kickers by sticking other position players there, and the kicker’s sophisticated technique was to attack the ball from straight behind it and kick with the toe. Think Charlie Brown, right before Lucy pulls the ball away. The pros were only slightly more elegant. Then dedicated soccer-style kickers — like Jan Stenerud, and brothers Pete and Charlie Gogolak — arrived to shake things up. Now kickers would approach the ball from an angle, plant forcefully and strike the ball with their instep. Those who didn’t washed quickly out of the game. Says Andersen, “The soccer-style guys made it viable. Then we took it to another level.”
And Andersen’s kicking generation soon cultivated its own band of disciples with even more skill than its forebears. Martin Gramatica, who kicked in Tampa, Indianapolis, Dallas and New Orleans from 1999 until 2008, and missed only two of his career 230 extra-point attempts, says kicking got better when more soccer players got involved. “When I started, a lot of the kickers would leave the facility to play golf after they were through kicking. Now there are more guys that played team sports. They want to be part of the action.” Today, kickers work out year-round.
And what have the kickers received in return, for all their success? A league hell-bent on tinkering with their craft. Think of the unforgiving K-balls, for instance, or of the ever wandering kickoff line, which moved back to the 30-yard line in 1994, because the NFL wanted fewer touchbacks and more returns, and then moved forward to the 35-yard line in 2011, because the NFL wanted more touchbacks and fewer returns. (TIME’s Sean Gregory reported in 2012 that Goodell was considering ending kickoffs altogether.) And now here comes the possible sunset of extra points — which provide kickers rare opportunities to get on the field — simply because kickers have gotten too good at them. Fun gig!
“They like to f-ck with us,” Andersen says.
“If basketball players get really good at free throws, is the NBA just going to eliminate free throws?” Gramatica says. “I just think it’s crazy.”
“They can’t leave well enough alone,” Andersen says. “The center-quarterback exchange is a high-percentage play too. You’re not gonna tweak the rule there, are you? Should he have to use his opposite hand? Is the guard gonna be the center?”
Both men say PATs are far from meaningless, and are anything but automatic. Gramatica had an extra-point try blocked while kicking for Tampa against Carolina in 2003, with no time left on the clock and the game tied at 9. Carolina won the game, 12-9, in overtime. Gramatica, who now runs a construction business and charitable foundation with his placekicker brothers Bill and Santiago, hasn’t forgotten it. Andersen, who today has a consulting business and his own foundation, hit one in the last minute of regulation to tie up the 1999 NFC championship game. (His 38-yard field goal would win it in overtime.) And the victory wouldn’t have been so sweet without it.
Andersen says, “A touchdown and extra point is like strawberries and cream. Who wants strawberries without the cream?”