Why can't you, a person who has kicked a ball before, come out of the stands to kick for the Carolina Panthers?
Last Sunday, an NFL team played an entire game without a functioning kicker. Has that happened before? Why isn't there a backup kicker? And why can't teams just sign someone on the spot?
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One of the commercials I distinctly remember from my childhood was this one, where
George Costanza Jason Alexander is in the stands when a hockey team’s goalie went down during the game and, inexplicably, there is no backup. So, thanks to the raw power of Rold Gold pretzels, Alexander is called to enter the game without any protective equipment except for a stick and glove, and makes save after save.
In 1995, that seemed like a farfetched enough scenario that a large, commercially viable pretzel company could mine for marketing purposes. However! That precise scenario came to pass for the Carolina Hurricanes last year in Toronto, when 42-year-old Zamboni driver David Ayres had to sub in after both of Carolina’s starting goalies left the game hurt. Ayres made seven saves in the third period, WON THE DAMN GAME, and became a folk hero.
In most sports, if a position player gets hurt, it’s not the end of the world, because there are many many other position players on the bench. But hockey teams usually only dress two goalies, which means if one or both of them is injured just before or during a game, it’s going to be a big problem. Hence, there’s an emergency goalie rule that dictates who a team can sign in a pinch.
I was thinking about all of this on Sunday, when I watched the Carolina Panthers attempt to play an NFL football game without a kicker. The short version: Zane Gonzalez went down with a quad injury during pregame warmups in Buffalo, and the Panthers had to scramble to see if anyone else on the roster could, you know, kick a football.
The Panthers ended up going with wide receiver Brandon Zylstra to handle kickoffs (“I am a man who has got to do everything,” he said after the game), but decided not to attempt any field goals or extra points. That changed the whole complexion of the game. The Panthers went for two after every touchdown, and decided not to kick any field goals in situations where they surely would have before. It did not pay off; Carolina was 1-for-5 on fourth downs. They probably would have lost the game even with a functioning kicker, but the whole thing made for some thrilling scenarios and gave us a halftime score, 17-8, that had never before occurred in the NFL. That’s right, we got a halftime scoregami!
As someone who enjoys bizarro NFL kicking scenarios (I talked about them in the very first edition of this newsletter!), I was riveted by this game. Others, like this Charlotte city councilman, were not amused AND DEMANDED AN INVESTIGATION:
Luckily for you, Braxton Winston, I found some answers.
Q: Has an NFL team ever started a game without a placekicker before?
A: Yes! Yes. Oh God, yes. In 2004, Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare got hurt during pregame warmups, pressing then-rookie wide receiver Wes Welker to become the emergency kicker. Not only did he boom kickoffs, but he also kicked an extra point and a 29-yard field goal against the Patriots, which were the first points he scored in the NFL. He ended up being the only person in NFL history to make and return kicks in the same game, is the only position player since 2000 to make a field goal.
He also kicked an extra point for the Patriots in 2010, and retired with a 100% accuracy rating.
There’s a whole YouTube video dedicated to position players kicking, starting off with a Cincinnati Bengals in a preseason game in 2009. Kicker Shayne Graham was injured before the game. Nobody knew about it until after the Bengals scored a touchdown, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco trotted out to kick the extra point. He hit it perfectly, and also boomed a huge kickoff right afterward. That PAT ended up being the deciding factor in a 7-6 (preseason) victory. There’s also defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh attempting (and missing) an extra point for the Lions, and quarterback Doug Flutie drop kicking an extra point for the Patriots in 2006, the first drop kick in the NFL since 1941.
Teams usually have someone informally tagged as an emergency kicker on the roster. The Panthers… didn’t? Or, as evidenced by their fire drill of a kicking tryout in pregame, they all sucked at it. One scenario would have involved getting their punter, Lachlan Edwards, to handle kicks, but then you’d also have to find someone to be the holder, because that’s also Edwards’s job. Plus Edwards gave an interview in 2017 where he admitted to being kinda frightened of kicking a ball that was already on the ground:
"You're kind of expected to be that guy," says Edwards, an Australian. "It's weird though, because a lot of people just assume that if you're able to kick a ball, you should be able to do both. They're totally different things. I never played soccer growing up, ever. I played Australian Football and cricket, and that was it. So my whole life I've been kicking a ball that has been in my hands and not on the ground."
One last note, there has only been one NFL game since 1970 where no points were scored by a kicker. In 2013, Philadelphia beat Detroit 34-20. If you’re wondering how 54 points could be scored without a single field goal or extra point, the answer is that the game was played in a blizzard, and each team decided not to put the ball in the air. The only kicking attempt, an extra point, was blocked.
Q: So, why don’t teams have more than one kicker on the roster?
A: Sometimes they do! Remember Rhys Lloyd? The Panthers put him on the roster back in 2007, because legendary kicker John Kasay could still hit field goals but had trouble kicking the ball deep on kickoffs. Lloyd spent four seasons in the NFL and had NOT ONE field goal attempt, mostly because Kasay didn’t miss a game. Also, just to be fair, the Panthers signed Lloyd three years AFTER Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds in Super Bowl XXXVIII, setting Tom Brady and the Patriots up for a comeback victory.
Anyhow, since the NFL moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard-line in 2011 as a safety measure (kickoff returns are among the most violent plays in football), a lot of kickers can put the ball in the end zone for a touchback, so there’s not much of an advantage to having a second kicker on the roster anymore to handle kickoffs and, possibly, the unlikely event of a kicker injury.
Q: Couldn’t the Panthers have just signed someone, I don’t know, in the stands who had kicked some sort of ball before?
A: I mean, this is the dream scenario, right? Nearly every guy with three beers or more in him on a Sunday could suddenly do a better job than that guy who just got hurt. Predictably, after Gonzalez went down, plenty of people lit up Twitter with different iterations of this message: Sure, I will come and play kicker for the Carolina Panthers.
However! There are two real-world issues surrounding that. First, because of that, um, GLOBAL PANDEMIC THAT HAS AFFECTED NEARLY EVERY FACET OF HUMAN LIFE, a new player would have to come in and pass two Covid tests over a 24 hour period, which doesn’t exactly work when the game is a few hours away. But more importantly, NFL rosters are frozen at 4 p.m. on Saturday. If Gonzalez had pulled a muscle on Saturday at noon, the Panthers could have gone out and signed someone or activated a kicker from the practice squad (Ha! Just kidding! Carolina didn’t have a kicker on its practice squad!). But! Because the injury happened in warmups, it was too late.
For what it’s worth, the Panthers ostensibly won’t be kickerless this weekend. They shut Gonzalez down for the season, and went out and signed another kicker: Lirim Hajrullahu. Fun fact! Hajrullahu was on Carolina’s practice squad last December, but was waived six days later because of an issue with his work visa (He’s from Kosovo). Carolina also signed a second kicker to the practice squad, just as a backup this time. This, folks, is what happens after you F around and find out.
There are a few kicker-specific rules in the rule book. A kicker (and a punter) is the only player who can play barefoot, which people actually used to do! Also, if you are kicking with an artificial leg, you have to wear a normal kicking shoe on it. (Thanks, Tom Dempsey.) So, I humbly propose one more: Allow teams to sign a kicker on the spot on game day. Get on the PA system. Ask if there are any soccer players or high school heroes in the stands. Shove a one-day contract into the hands of the first person who raises his or her hand. And then sit back and watch the thrill of a normal human being trying to make kicks in an NFL game. I have only one humble request: Call it the Rabbit Hole Rule.
NOTE: Christmas is on Saturday! I’ll be enjoying some time off with my family, and I hope you will be too. As such, there won’t be a Rabbit Hole newsletter in your inbox on Monday, although we will be back with a Year-In-Review edition a week from today. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some holiday cheer, may I recommend listening to the story of Marshall Rauch, a Jewish man from Gastonia who became the largest maker of Christmas ornaments in the world. Happy holidays, everybody.