Best foot forward

Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — They are pushed to the side, forced to practice alone, left to construct their days around quirky rituals that have more to do with wind speed, turf conditions and hangtime than blocking, tackling and throwing.

At worst, they are not considered "real" football players.

At best, they lift their entire teams to a championship.

They are the kickers. During this unpredictable NFL playoff season, they have put the "foot" back in football.

"Obviously, it's at its highest point ever," Kent Stephens, archives and collections manager at the College Football Hall of Fame, said of the status of today's kicking game.

In last week's playoffs, the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots each moved one win away from the Super Bowl on the strength of last-minute field goals — Chicago's by a former construction worker named Robbie Gould and New England's by a rookie named Stephen Gostkowski.

The Indianapolis Colts, meanwhile, advanced after getting all 15 of their points against Baltimore from kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Vinatieri has become a star of this championship-game week, not just for the clutch performance, but for his past. He kicked the field goals that provided the winning margin in three of the past five Super Bowls — for New England.

Last offseason, he was the rare kicker who became a hot commodity, and archrival Indianapolis grabbed him.

On Sunday, Vinatieri will try to kick his old team out of the playoffs.

"It's a fun situation," he said.

Teammate tight end Ben Utecht paid Vinatieri the ultimate compliment this week, saying the Colts' new kicker was a leader.

"He's a hard worker," Utecht said. "He's a guy you really want to be around. Just because he's a kicker doesn't mean he can't be a leader."

There was a time when that wouldn't have been such a notable statement. In the 1920s and '30s, football teams didn't use the frequent-substitution system that has, over the years, turned essentially every player into a specialist.

Back then, almost anyone could be a kicker.

"You couldn't bring in a specialist to kick an extra point," Stephens said. "It had to be one of the guys on the field. There were guards who were kickers, backs who were kickers."

Football's roots in the United States date to the 1870s, when Harvard and McGill University in Canada played a pair of games, one by the Harvard rules and another by McGill's. Harvard liked the Canadian rules so well, it adopted them.

That early version of American football looked a lot like rugby does today. At that time, a "touch-down" only counted if neither team kicked a field goal, and four touchdowns were worth a single field goal.

The ball was round and easy to kick. Drop kicks — virtually unheard of these days — were common. So was punting on first, second and third downs. Touchdowns evolved to be worth two points, "point-after-touchdown" kicks were worth four and field goals were worth five.

Stephens said the forward pass didn't become legal until 1906. It wasn't until the 1930s that the ball's shape changed to become more aerodynamically friendly for passing, less so for kicking.

These days, all kickers are specialists, and most dreamed of playing soccer or another position on the football field.

"I was kicking a round ball when I was younger, thinking I'd be playing in a World Cup someday," said John Carney of the Saints, who will play the Bears in Sunday's NFC championship. "At least, that was my original dream."

Now, the dream is the Super Bowl. All four kickers playing Sunday know that despite their less-than-respected status, the games could come down to them.

"That's the nature of the position," Carney said.

Of course, kicking isn't only about the kicker.

Twice in the last month, the other cogs of the kicking machine — the long-snapper and holder — have cost their teams games.

Brad St. Louis of the Cincinnati Bengals made a bad snap to holder Kyle Larson in a late regular-season game to botch the extra point, which is supposed to be one of the most routine plays in football. The result was a 24-23 loss to Denver that crippled Cincinnati's playoff hopes.

More recently, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who doubles as the team's holder, mishandled a good snap on a field-goal try that was shorter than an extra point in the waning moments of a playoff game against Seattle. The result — a 21-20 loss and an offseason of discontent for Romo, who had been one of the league's success stories.

Last week, the endings were much better.

Gould made a 49-yard field goal in overtime to lift the Bears to a 27-24 victory over Seattle, putting them one win away from their first Super Bowl since 1985.

"To trade a round ball for an oblong ball is obviously a little bit different," said the journeyman kicker, who reluctantly gave up soccer to work on football. "And you know it was fun. It was an easy adjustment to make."

Gostkowski made a 31-yard kick against San Diego with 1:10 left to provide the winning points for the Patriots in their 24-21 win. So far, he has proven up to the challenge of replacing Vinatieri.

But Vinatieri still sets the gold standard. The guy knows pressure. He is, after all, a descendent of Gen. George Custer's bandleader and a third cousin of Evel Knievel.

Who wouldn't want him kicking with a Super Bowl on the line?

"You never know," Vinatieri said. "You prepare like you're going to be out there a bunch, and if that happens, that's great. And if not, you stand on the sideline, and you cheer a bunch."

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