Requiem for a Kicker: The NFL's Dumb Quest to Boot Tradition

This week, the league's competition committee meets to mess with the game. Should extra points really be its top priority?

Adam Vinatieri of the Indianapolis Colts during the 2015 Pro Bowl on January 25th, 2015. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty

I could be wrong here, but I imagine there's never been an NFL Films retrospective on the most meaningful extra points in football history.

Even if there were, it would be short and concise and narrated by Ben Stein: With a few exceptions, it is the closest thing an otherwise brute-force exercise has to a routine play, a post-touchdown shavasana exhalation that dates back to the sport's rugbyfied roots. Either you find the facile nature of the extra point an oddly comforting Zen moment in an otherwise barbaric three hours of violence, or your short-attention span finds it rife with boredom. It would appear the National Football League itself might be tilting toward the latter.

This week, the NFL's competition committee will meet, and one of the items on the agenda is the possibility of tweaking the extra point, of turning it into something with a much starker potential for disaster or misadventure. It's a change specifically mentioned by Roger Goodell during his Super Bowl press conference last month; it's not really the first problem (or the second, or third, or the 19th) people bring up when they think about pro football, but it is indicative of the ethos of a sport that lives in constant fear of somehow becoming boring, if only for a few seconds.

And so in the preseason, the league experimented with moving the line of scrimmage on extra points back to the 15-yard line, turning it into a 33-yard attempt; and during the Pro Bowl, the league narrowed the uprights by four feet (from 18 feet, 6 inches, to 14 feet, 6 inches), causing otherwise reliable kicker Adam Vinatieri to miss a field goal and two extra points.

The idea of the extra point only exists because of what football used to be, back when it lived up to its name: In the 19th century, the touchdown was valued far less than the "try" itself. Over the years, the foot in "football" was slowly de-emphasized, until the kicking specialist became a bizarre outlier both in Hollywood and in real life, a man standing outside the sport's barbarous image. No one, of course, is proposing that kicking be phased out altogether, because there's something kind of cool about that marriage of viciousness and finesse; in fact, the main problem with the kicking game is that these people have actually gotten to be too good at their jobs.    

And this is why I think the extra point – and the larger notion of making field goals more difficult – might be best off left alone. Because there's something kind of beautiful about the idea that a largely marginalized worker has become so incredibly competent at one particular skill that he's turned it into a routine exercise. Isn't this, at some level, what football is supposed to be? Isn't it supposed to reward excellence?

I realize this logic does not apply to defensive backs, who became so good at their occupations that the NFL tweaked the rules to emphasize passing. But that feels like a different thing; offense is an essential part of the game, on constant display, and should be constantly evolving. The extra point happens maybe six-or-eight times per game, if we're lucky. The sheer routine of it allows us to absorb the touchdown that came before; and when something does go wrong on an extra point, it's such a bizarre aberration that it almost feels like a break in the fabric of time and space.

I'm sure the NFL will do something, though, because they probably feel like they have to. I'm sure they'll alter the extra point because, as Goodell noted last month, "fans want every play to have suspense."

I wish it wasn't that way. I wish we could accept the fact that one little meditative breath of a moment is not going to somehow turn football into baseball. Yet people bring different expectations to a football game. They demand constant RedZone action: If they're not being entertained on every play, Goodell seems to be implying, then why bother?

But then, isn't football's brutal tendency to force entertainment what put it on the long-term endangered species list in the first place? Isn't there beauty in the quiet of a well-worn ritual? Sometimes, I'd argue, there's enough suspense in the routine.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb