My first paying job in journalism was at age 19 with the Champaign-Urbana Courier in the home cities of the University of Illinois, where I was a student. I received $1.25 an hour to cover the Champaign High School teams. I felt myself richly rewarded, the sum being more than adequate to pay for gas for my ‘53 Ford, movies and almost-nightly trips to the Chuck Wagon, my diner of choice. Life was good.
One of my first “enterprise” features came in 1958, my second year on the job. In a football game that season, a player on the CHS team kicked a field goal, about a 20-yarder. The feat was so unusual I asked around to see if anyone could remember the last time it had been done locally. No one could with certainty. I searched the paper’s ragged files and found that a field goal had been kicked against the school four or five years earlier but that no Champaign lad had done it during that period. I already knew that even kicked points-after-touchdown were rare at the high-school level, so using the FG as a point of departure my piece investigated the sad state of the placekicking art. I recall it being well received.
Of late, of course, every decent-sized high school has a good kicker, and the specialty has blossomed fully in the colleges and pros. Indeed, one of football’s seminal events was the day in 1961 that a young Pete Gogolak kicked a 41-yard field goal for Cornell University using the “soccer-style” movement he’d learned on the pitches of his native Hungary. By adding hip torque to leg strength, the technique vastly increased kickers’ range and accuracy. Its later development by Gogolak and others at the pro level revolutionized the game.
Now a counter-revolution is stirring, led by the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, of all people. As last season wound down he noted aloud that kicked points-after-touchdown in the league had become so monotonously successful that they might better be eliminated, replaced by the awarding of seven points for a TD or giving the scoring team the option of going for two points with a play from scrimmage while forfeiting a point for failure. Since the commish’s musings are taken as seriously as Chairman Mao’s once were, league officials can be expected to consider the change before next season commences.
To that I say fine, but why stop at examining just extra points? I’ve long held that football would be a better game without the foot, one with no kicking at all, punting as well as placekicking. You could start each game by putting the ball at midfield, lining up a player from each team on the 40s and letting them race and claw for possession. The winner’s team would possess the spheroid until it goes four-downs-and-out or scores a touchdown. Then the other guys would give it a go from the point of surrender or from its own 30-yard line after a TD, back and forth until time expires, with the usual quarter- and half-time breaks.
Extra points would be regular plays from the 2 1/2-yard line, just like they’re sometimes done now. Field goals are copouts and dull to boot (they’re either good or they’re not), and no big loss. No punting would enhance the importance of every play and make fourth-down plays—the game’s most exciting—more frequent. With no way out under the rules, coaches would have to shed the play-calling conservatism that soddens the present-day game. It’d be a true 100-yard war without quarter. Call it “Battleball” and let the boys go at it!
I’m sure your eyes are rolling by now, but steady them if you can. If eliminating kicked extra points is justifiable by their frequency of success (99.something% in recent years), field goals haven’t been far behind. In the years immediately before 1974, when NFL goal post were placed at the back of the end zone and their widths narrowed to 18 ½ feet, field goals were good roughly 50% of the time. Now the overall success rate is at about 85% and climbing.
Field goals of 50 yards or more were rare in the 1960s and ‘70s but last season they were good about 65% of the time. Six of the 14 NFL FGs of 60-yards or more were kicked in the last three seasons, including Matt Prater’s 2013 record 64-yarder. At the rate things are going, any team that reaches midfield soon will be in scoring range, offering reward for slight achievement. Is this the sort of lesson we should be teaching our children?
NFL kickoffs already have come in for deemphasis, with player safety the objective. In 2011 the league moved the kickoff spot up five yards to the 35-yard line; in consequence, the number of touchbacks rose to about 44% last season from about 16% the season before the change. The complete absence of the play, with its high-velocity collisions, only could aid the league’s effort to reduce concussions and other serious injuries.
Taking the foot out of football would have other beneficial results. One would be to eliminate kickers, specialists who fit into the game about as well would Chihuahuas at a convention of Dobermans. With few exceptions kickers are pale, frail guys whose lives seem at risk every time they make contact with the big-bodied types who staff most of the other positions. If not for the money, most probably would be glad to be elsewhere.
Finally, by calling the sport “Battleball,” the U.S. could join the rest of the world to whom “football” means the real game of the foot. That would erase the name “soccer” (derived from the old term AsSOCiation Football), one of the ugliest words around.
Addition by subtraction! Who could ask for more?