When I happened upon the final 90 seconds of Sunday afternoon’s game between Washington and St. Louis, I saw the Redskins’ desperate comeback end on the “shank of all shanks” by kicker Billy Cundiff.

The attempt was from improbable range — 62 yards — and made by a kicker not known for exceptional leg strength. The kicker faced the blame, but in reality the game was not decided on the right foot of Cundiff, but rather on the play of an entire team for 60 minutes and the fact that the Rams had outplayed their opponent.

Earlier in the day, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yarder at the end of regulation that would’ve won the game against an inferior Arizona team. Gostkowski’s miss came after he had made three field goals from greater distance — 46, 51 and 53 yards — earlier in the game. Upon firing wide left, his four-for-four day was immediately forgotten; the blame game had begun.

Unlike the long-range effort from Cundiff, Gostkowski was supposed to make that kick. His reputation since entering the league in 2006 says he should’ve made the kick. Ask Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and field goal holder Zoltan Mesko. They’ll all tell you he should’ve made the kick. Forty-two yards is no joke, even in the NFL, but the expectations were on Gostkowski’s ball to sail through the uprights and for the Patriots to be 2-0.

The NFL kicker is a unique specimen. They are some of the least-hyped, lowest-paid players in the league. In close games, they are the single most crucial member of the team, yet they are seemingly the most dispensable and least appreciated.

Some kickers play their entire careers with one club, while others earn “journeyman” status, such as Cundiff’s 10 teams in 10 years, jumping from team to team and filling voids around the league.

So what makes a good kicker? Accuracy? Poise? Consistency? Some combination of the three?
It’s a question that can be only partially answered by statistics. In 1998, Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson set an NFL record by making every kick — field goal and extra point — he attempted during the regular season. But in that year’s NFC championship, Anderson missed a 38-yarder that would have sent the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Instead, Atlanta punched its ticket.

An entire year of perfection was erased by one kick. And Anderson’s legacy as one of the longest-serving NFL players was sullied by a single performance.

Every sport has its lone wolf, the one player, separate from the rest, who’s relied upon to come through in the clutch. Soccer and hockey have goalies, baseball has closers and football has kickers.

Each has its own mystique, but kickers don’t seem to relish their role as much the other lone wolves around sports.

Mariano Rivera, closer for the New York Yankees, takes the field to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” NHL goalies devote meticulous time to perfecting the design on their helmets. NFL kickers, on the other hand, lack the little quirks that their counterparts enjoy. They simply get off the bench, take a couple practice kicks and walk onto the field.

The life of an NFL kicker is tumultuous and unpredictable. There are no gradual trends of improvement or decline. Their productivity is largely the result of the opportunities they are given. As a result, some of the league’s best kickers play for teams that don’t necessarily experience a great deal of success. It’s the only conceivable situation in sports where going one-for-three could be better than going four-for-five.

Kickers will dismiss the notion that uncertainty and luck play large roles in their success — or struggles — but it’s an undisputed truth. In fact, one of the most memorable kicks in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri’s boot in the 2001 AFC divisional clash between the Patriots and Raiders, never should’ve happened. A blown call extended New England’s game-tying drive, and Vinatieri took the field to give the Patriots the tie and, eventually, the game.

The NFL is about gut-wrenching hits, game-winning fourth-quarter drives and day-long tailgates outside stadiums all across America. Fans dedicate every Sunday from September through February to watching behemoths run at each other up and down the field.

But when it comes down to winning games — to walking into the locker room the victor — you can forget about the pretty-boy quarterback, the diva receiver and the “bad-boy” middle linebacker.

No close game is ever won or lost without the say-so of the kicker.

Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.

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