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THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Quiet Rule Cooked Up to Really Limit Field Goals

October 15, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE

As the kicker slowly sinks beneath the NFL horizon--along with good officiating and coaches who wear hats--let us pause to remember what once made kickers so great.

"Preheat the oven to 250 degrees, bake for 10 minutes," said Gary Zauner, who coaches the Minnesota Vikings' special teams.

Come again?

"OK, so maybe you don't need the oven," Zauner said. "So maybe you put it in the dryer with a towel."

Put what in the dryer?

"The football," Zauner said. "It's long been the secret of the kicking world."

What has?

"Working the football," Zauner said. "The reason that field goals are not as long this year, and the reason more are being missed, has nothing to do with the rules everybody is talking about.

"It's all about kickers no longer being allowed to work up the football."

According to interviews with players and league officials, Zauner is not kidding.

Don't blame the lack of long and important field goals this season on the new rules. Those rules have simply reduced the number of attempts.

The reason kickers are no longer heroes is that they are no longer allowed to cheat.

"That could be a reason," agreed Pete Stoyanovich of the Miami Dolphins. "I don't know if people are still tampering with the ball, but I know when they do, that makes a difference."

Stoyanovich might have engaged the Raiders' Jeff Jaeger in a dramatic kicking duel when the teams meet Sunday.

But if this week is like the season's previous six weeks, they will probably spend the most important parts of the afternoon staring into that silly sideline net. Here's the breakdown:

--Of 22 field-goal attempts of 50 yards or longer, NFL kickers have connected on exactly one--Kevin Butler's 50-yarder for the Chicago Bears.

Last season after six weeks, in eight fewer games, kickers were 23 for 39 in 50-yard attempts.

That's a 96% decrease.

John Carney of the San Diego Chargers kicked two field goals from 50-plus yards in his first game last season.

--There have been only two game-winning field goals in the final five seconds of regulation play this season--by Carney against the Raiders and Matt Bahr of the New England Patriots against the Green Bay Packers.

After six weeks last season, there had been six game-winning kicks in the closing moments.

But those are merely numbers.

The real story here can be found in the smell of burning pigskin. And the threat of burning money.

While publicly promoting the new rule that returns missed field-goal attempts to the point of the kick--a seven- or eight-yard penalty--the league has been quietly implementing a rule with greater impact.

NFL officials have sent a directive to all teams, threatening a $20,000 fine for tampering with the ball. The fine would not necessarily be charged against the kicker--for some of these guys, that's just pedicure money--but against working stiffs, such as the equipment managers.

So instead of liberally passing out the 24 game balls that each home team receives during the week before its games, equipment guys are hiding them. For many, the fine would amount to serious money.

And the kickers?

Their goal is to turn a slick, tightly-sewn ball into a softer, baggier one.

"We only use new balls here, nothing tampered--(Coach) Dennis Green would never allow that--and you can tell that when you bring in guys for tryouts," said Zauner, a noted kicking coach who has run schools that have attracted most of the league's top kickers.

"A guy who is tampering with the ball looks great on film, and then he comes here and loses five to seven yards a kick," Zauner said. "And they are a lot less accurate. It happens all the time."

If you don't believe him, just look at the record of kickers at the Metrodome this season.

There not only has not been a touchback, but reliable kickers Fuad Reveiz, Jason Hanson and Stoyanovich are three for eight in field-goal attempts there.

"I know that new balls are not hit as well as balls that are broken in, that's a fact," Stoyanovich said.

What exactly can kickers do to a new ball? First it is inflated a bit beyond the league's official limit. The slick surface is then deadened with alcohol to make it more pliable.

The ball is then baked or heated in a dryer, causing it to expand further.

Just before game time, the ball is deflated to the maximum allowed weight so it appears to be regulation.

"But after three or four days of work, after deflation the ball can actually be about an inch wider than normal," Zauner said. "And it's much, much softer."

So without that advantage, kickers will continue to disappear?

Not quite. Expect them to regain that edge as their bravado increases with each week.

Realizing that the new rule is nearly impossible to police, expect to see more balls sneaked into more laundry rooms.

Or expect kickers to use a loophole in the edict that allows balls to be molded to the quarterback's liking.

Not that Stoyanovich and Dan Marino have the same tastes, but. . . .

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