Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We turn now to another art form, of sorts. It involves the artistic look of a football sailing end over end, high in the air between the goalposts. Something about that vision bugs sports commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: Of all the strained sports clich├ęs, my favorite was educated toe. Remember? An accomplished field-goal kicker possessed an educated toe. I had a newspaper friend who wrote that a punter had an intellectual instep, but the copy desk wouldn't allow it - spoilsports.

However, toes - those both educated and illiterate - have been replaced on the gridiron by soccer-style kickers, who boot the pigskin side-footed. When these guys first started coming into the NFL, they were often as not foreigners, and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, who died last week, used to mimic them, calling out in falsetto: "I kick a touchdown. I kick a touchdown." Today, though, kickers tend to be everyday Americans who are more proficient than ever. And so, for that matter, also are the punters.

So far this year, NFL field-goal kickers have made 88 percent of their attempts. They've even made two-thirds of their tries from more than 50 yards. That's ridiculous. In any sport, if you have that level of success, the game is out of whack. Plus, it's boring. With kicking, football is turning into professional bowling, where most every ball is a strike. And don't get me started on extra points.

I also think the fact that kickers, placement and punters alike, are so good that it hurts the game in another way. It encourages football coaches, who are already such cowardly lions, to play even safer: Don't dare go for a first down when it's fourth and short, bring in the kicker.

Football coaches have more power to affect a game than those in other sports. A baseball manager can change pitchers or put in a pinch hitter. A basketball coach can call time out and set up a play, a hockey coach can pull the goalie. Yes, these coaches in other sports can change strategy, but only football coaches can actually control what's going to happen: keep the ball, go for three points or give it up.

And, as we know only too well, football coaches tend to be scaredy-cats. Fourth and one, everyone is screaming go for it, they send in the kicker. Right? But, hey, a coach knows that if he takes a chance and fails, he's going to take heat. If he kicks, he's essentially kicking the can down the road.

Starting several years ago with the work of David Romer, a distinguished economics professor, it's been statistically confirmed that if coaches did go for it more in short-yardage situations, they'd be more successful over the long haul. But even though the game is more wide open now, fearful football coaches still use buttoned-down old-fashioned tactics in those situations.

And the fact that the kickers are so much more proficient makes coaches even more prone to turn it over to the highly educated feet on their team. Come on, out there: Don't kick a touchdown, lemme hear it - go for it.

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford kicks the conventional wisdom each Wednesday.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford