a smart blend of sports analytics and story telling
Sep 2015: Reprinted from the Bonus Morsels chapter of Football Morsels: Quarterbacks
SIX POINT FIELD GOALS
COLLEGE FOOTBALL FLASHBACK: On November 30, 2013, the Alabama Crimson Tide lined up to kick a 57-yard game-winning field goal against their Iron Bowl archrival, the Auburn Tigers, with one second remaining in the game. The excitement and confusion that ensued on that field goal attempt has occurred only a handful of times in collegiate or professional football, and never in a game of this magnitude. Freshman Adam Griffith, whose career long to that point had been 52-yards, kicked the ball as far as he could but came up just short of the goalposts. Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, who had dropped back into the single safety position, caught the ball 9-yards deep into the end zone and decided to return the missed kick. As he raced out of the end zone, he juked a couple of fat linemen at the 20, picked up a couple of blocks, tiptoed his way along the Auburn bench on the left sideline then raced the final yards with an exuberant teammate escort for a 109-yard FG return for TD. The Tigers literally snatched a 34-28 win out of thin air and headed to the SEC Championship game, cutting short the Alabama bid for another undefeated season and an opportunity to win a third consecutive National Championship. The look of stun and disbelief on the face of Nick Saban on the sidelines during and after the play was priceless.
As it turns out, the FG return for a touchdown has also occurred 16 times at the professional level in the modern era, 13 times in the NFL and 3 in the AFL. Besides the obvious difficulty of returning the kick the length of the field, missed field goal returns have become a rarity because of the highly unfavorable field position risk-reward. Before 1974, after a missed field goal the opposing team would take over possession at the 20-yard line. Since the penalty for missing turned out the same as punting into the end zone, few teams passed on long field goals attempts. In addition, with the goal post positioned at the goal line at that time, it was common for kickers to line up on the far side of the field for 50+ yard FG attempts. Tom Dempsey’s record 63-yard FG, for example, came from the 37-yard line on the far side. Pre-1974, the returner would line up in the end zone behind the goal post, and if the kicker missed, which happened nearly 70% of the time back then on 50+ FGs, he could easily return the kick.
Since 1974, with the goal posts at the back of the end zone, the kick needs to come up short, which only occurs on very long FG attempts. The rules changed and from 1974 to 1994, on a missed FG the ball returned to the line of scrimmage. After 1995, the ball came back to the spot of the FG attempt, so a miss on a long FG attempt gave the opposition the advantage of a short field after taking over near midfield. Clearly, the risk became unworthy of the reward unless the attempt occurred as the first or second half expired, when the other team’s offense would not have an opportunity to take possession with a short field and quickly turn a missed FG into a score the other way.
Of the 16 missed FGs returned for touchdowns, only Al Nelson of the Eagles turned the trick twice, in 1966 and again in 1971. Only one HOFer so far, Detroit Lions cornerback Lem Barney, has returned one for a TD in 1968, but that could change soon since Devin Hester returned one 108-yards in 2006. Hester, the best return man ever, has a solid chance of joining the Canton Club. The record for the longest return, 109 yards, belongs to San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie in 2007, tying the record for the longest scoring play in NFL history.