Narrower goal posts could be coming to the NFL

By Mark Craig | Minneapolis Star Tribune Published:

By Mark Craig | Minneapolis Star Tribune

Chances are you've never heard of him, but Ward Cuff was quite the NFL placekicking weapon from 1937 to 1947.

Representing the New York Giants, Chicago Cardinals and Green Bay Packers, the Redwood Falls, Minn., native led the league in field goals made four times and field goal accuracy twice.

In 1943, he led both, going 3-for-9 for 33.3 percent. Not bad for someone whose main duty was playing wingback in the Giants' single-wing offense. The league average that year was 23.5 percent (16 of 68).

In 1967, Jan Stenerud began a 19-year career with the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings. To this day, he's the only Pro Football Hall of Famer who was exclusively a kicker. His career percentage of .668 ranks 112th in league history.

An NFL goalpost has been 18 feet, 6 inches wide since the league was founded in 1920. But the guys kicking footballs through them certainly have changed. In fact, they've changed so much that many people around the league believe it's only a matter of time before the NFL narrows the goalposts to reduce the expanding range of chip shots and increase the number of times teams go for it on fourth down.

''I think that's probably something that will be talked about in the offseason," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I know it's been talked about in the past. That's probably something that could be coming down the road."

Thirteen of the top 14 most accurate kickers in NFL history are active. The top two are second-year players Justin Tucker from Baltimore (92.2 percent) and Minnesota's Blair Walsh (90.8).

''Snappers and holders are as good as ever," Walsh said. "And kickers are specializing at an earlier age. I started kicking my sophomore year in high school, the same year I started getting specially trained in just kicking. I didn't play any other position."

Stenerud made 17 of 64 attempts from 50 yards or longer in 263 games. Walsh has made 12 of 14 in 28 games, including an NFL-record 10 without a miss as a rookie.

Walsh and his contemporaries enjoy numerous modern advantages, including better field conditions and more domed stadiums. They are making the most of them, too.

In 2011, there were a then-record 90 successful 50-yard field goals. In 2012, that record became 92. This year, the pace is set for 95.

The Broncos' Matt Prater made a 64-yarder in Denver on Sunday. It broke the NFL mark of 63 yards that had been tied only three times since Tom Dempsey set it 43 years ago.

But how long can we expect Prater's record to stand? A year ago, St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein -- aka "Legatron" -- had plenty of distance on a 66-yard attempt that was wide right.

Even with this year's record-breaking pace of 50- and 60-yarders, the league has a combined field goal accuracy percentage of .856 (693 of 810). That would break the record of .845 (845 of 1,000) set in 2008.

''If the percentages stay the way they are, I would not be surprised at all to see the league narrow the goalposts," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "It seems like they don't want the game to get too easy. And that's the trend for these young kickers."

The league already tried doing something with the ball 14 years ago when it introduced the K-ball, which prevented kickers from doctoring the ball to make it easier to kick. Kickers complained but overcame.

''Narrowing the goalposts would not be the smart thing to do, and I don't think they'll do it," Walsh said. "Quarterbacks are throwing for more yards than they ever have. Are we going to start letting the defense use 12 or 13 players to stop them?"

But what if the league does narrow the goalposts?

''If they're smaller, they're smaller for everybody," Walsh said. "We practice with narrower goalposts. So I do think it would be a mistake, but, hey, as long as the middle is still there, you can hit it."

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