When it came time for the NFL to name its all-decade team for the 2010s, it was no surprise that the Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was an unanimous choice. There’s an argument that of all the players selected for the team, the best of the lot was Tucker.
We should perhaps clarify that statement. No one would argue that they’d rather have Tucker on their team than other unanimous picks such as Tom Brady, Aaron Donald and JJ Watt. But was Tucker a better kicker in the 2010s than Brady was a quarterback or Aaron Donald a defensive lineman? It’s certainly not hyperbole to suggest he is the greatest of all-time at his position. After all Tucker is the most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL, one of eight NFL records he owns (and that’s before we get to his opera singing career). And it’s not just that Tucker makes kicks, he makes them when they matter. That may well be why only Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning have earned more Player of the Month awards. Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has coached two elite kickers in Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri, has gone on record to call Tucker the best player at his position.
Yet, there’s that caveat: “at his position.” There’s an element of damning with faint praise here. No matter how skilled he is at his craft, Tucker will always be “only” a kicker. Kickers are a vital part of any NFL team yet there are many who refuse to count them as “real football players”.
Part of the problem lies within the sport itself. Like an elite relief pitcher in baseball, kickers are only brought in when the situation calls for them. While offensive and defensive players play together as a unit, a kicker comes into a game with all eyes on him. After seeing 11 players on each side go after each other, the action stops so that a lone individual can attempt to kick a ball through the uprights. Football briefly mutates into a radically different – and much less physical – game.
That’s the other thing too. While they are vulnerable during kickoffs, kickers mostly have the luxury of avoiding the violence that defines the sport. The life of a kicker in comparison to, say, that of a running back or a linebacker is a relatively tranquil one: the pressure they face tends to be more of the internal variety.
Because of this, it’s easier to overlook just how talented kickers such as Tucker are. Few of us watching an NFL game can genuinely picture ourselves trying to tackle a professional football player or attempting to throw a perfect spiral to a receiver while gigantic defenders attempt to take us down. We can, however, easily imagine ourselves kicking a football. In comparison, it feels like a rather cushy job.
This, of course, is ridiculously wrongheaded. Like all professional athletes, NFL kickers are a different breed than the vast majority of us. It’s not just about leg strength, although that alone would disqualify the majority of us from getting anywhere near an NFL game. There’s also a huge amount of skill, strategy and relentless practice.
All of this is without getting into the mental side of the equation. While his teammates have the luxury of being part of a unit, the kicker has nowhere to hide. When it’s their time to get in the game, every single eye will be on them. Beyond that, with the exception of extremely long field goals (ones outside of 50-yard range) a kicker’s job is basically to be perfect, as most field goal attempts are taken for granted, points just waiting to be scored. The kicker either does what he’s supposed to do or screws up, there is no moment of triumph. When a kicker’s name is trending on Twitter there’s a 90% chance that it is extremely bad news for the player in question.
Then there is the end of game pressure. Other than the quarterback, no other player on the roster is more likely to have a game fall on their shoulders during the closing moments. There is barely a Sunday that goes by without one game where the outcome comes down to a late field goal. NFL games – heck, entire seasons – regularly come down to a single kick. When a kicker misses in a key spot, there’s usually nobody else to blame and their previous successes count for nothing. It doesn’t matter what kind of career the kicker has had to that point, it only takes a handful of misses for a team to move on to another candidate. Job security is rough for everybody in the NFL, where there are few guaranteed contracts, but kickers are probably the most disposable commodity of all.
This, appropriately enough, takes us back to Tucker who might just be the exception that proves the rule, a rare kicker who has made himself indispensable. The Ravens have recognized this. In 2016 they put the franchise tag on him, the kind of move that teams normally reserve for star quarterbacks, before signing him to a $16m extension. They signed him to an additional $20m four-year extension last year, not bad for a player who went undrafted out of college. It will probably be worth it: while having a great kicker won’t necessarily win you games, not having one will probably lose you some.
As of right now, there are only two players who are in the Hall of Fame who were exclusively kickers during their careers: Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen, with Vinatieri likely to join their ranks. Given where he is now, Tucker is in a prime position to not just join them but to solidify his position as the best kicker of all time. Hopefully, this distinction will force people to mention his name when discussing all-time great players. Even if he is “only” a kicker.