For Rams and 49ers, Coaching Changes are Evident

The (now LA) Rams just defeated the 49ers 41-39 on Thursday Night Football in San Francisco. It was a great game and an absolute treat to watch, as I can’t remember the last time before this there was a good TNF game. I genuinely came in thinking this could be a 6-3 game. But the offenses went blow for blow, and towards the end as it was looking like the Rams would pull away, the 49ers rallied and almost came back to win. There were lots of great plays during the comeback including a fumbled kick return that SF recovered, a 4th down TD conversion, and an amazing onside kick. The 49ers brought out the kicker Robbie Gould to do the kick (their punter Bradley Pinion normally handles kickoff duties), and he rushed to get setup and approach, which I think caught the 49ers a little off guard. The onside kick was a gutsy call as the 49ers had the 2 minute warning and a timeout and only needed a field goal, but it worked and was crazy to watch, as the ball bounced off a 49er’s helmet and into the hands of another 49er.

(Also side note, after talking to my cousin I realized this: Apparently the goal of an onside kick is to have it bounce off the ground quickly before it goes up in the air the needed 10 yards, because if it doesn’t bounce off the ground, then the hands team can just call a fair catch. Which means that all those wonderfully executed onside kicks that look like short lobs actually were bounced off the ground. That is REALLY hard to execute and makes me respect the successful ones even more. Even on replay I couldn’t see the ball hit the ground after Gould kicked it as it must have happened so quickly, but Collinsworth confirmed that it did. Realizing I had been looking at onside kicks wrong, I thought of another notable one, Steven Hauschka’s onside kick during the 2014 NFC Championship game vs the Packers. This was another kick that from the camera angle just looked like the kicker pooched it up, so I pulled it up on my computer to see if that one too had hit the ground. And sure enough, though I couldn’t see it, Aikman did mention it hitting the ground. So there – ya learn something new every day!)

The Rams ultimately held on to win this game. There was a key offensive pass interference penalty which pushed the 49ers back to 3rd and 20 on their final drive. It really didn’t look like a penalty from the replay angle we saw, but that penalty basically decided the game. Hoyer was off target on 3rd and 20 and was sacked on 4th and 20 as the Niners struggled to block the Rams all night.

But what is evident from watching this great game is that these two teams are worlds apart from where they were last year, in a good way. And I credit the coaching changes, specifically, the hires of Sean McVay to coach the Rams and Kyle Shanahan to coach the 49ers.

Coaching is so important in football. Especially on offense. In this day and age, creativity and scheme is so important. These two young coaches recognize and understand that and know how to scheme and coach offense as well as anyone. And the messages seem to be getting through.

What’s distinct about these coaches is how young they are. Sean McVay is 31 and Kyle Shanahan is 37. That’s very young for coaches. But in the modern NFL, which is ever more tilted towards the offense, these coaches seem to know how to create offense in ways that the older generation might not. Constrast McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, with the Rams’ previous coach, Jeff Fisher. Fisher was 59 years old. He took the Titans to the Superbowl in 1999, but has struggled in the more recent years. He’s an old school disciplinarian, a hard-nosed defensive coach. He’s well respected around the league, but his offense lacked firepower. With their No 1 overall QB Jared Goff looking lost and virtually no passing game last year, they needed a change. And McVay seems to be providing it. Goff, as well as the offense, looks a lot better.

McVay and Shanahan may be young, but they are both very qualified. McVay was the OC in Washington under Jay Gruden, and that offense was one of the best schemed offenses in football. The same can be said for Kyle Shanahan, whose Atlanta offense under Matt Ryan shattered records on the way to the Superbowl last year. Andy Benoit of the MMQB at SI once stated that last year, Kyle Shanahan flat out embarrassed some of the best defensive coordinators in the game. Both of these coaches use formations and route concepts–often with a heavy emphasis on play action–to simplify reads and scheme open receivers for the Quarterback. They both provide a sense of timing, rhythm and tempo to the offenses, as well as clarity to the Quarterbacks. Shanahan is also really good at scheming the zone running game and the play action boot game off of it. You see the quick strike play action slants with both teams, a staple. And Goff just seems so much more comfortable and in command than last year. SF did the right thing in ditching the sandlot and undisciplined Kaepernick (and for everyone saying that was a mistake, it was essentially his decision to leave). Brian Hoyer is not going to wow anyone and he’s just keeping the seat warm for their eventual franchise QB (who they will likely draft next year), but he can efficiently run a well schemed offense like we’ve seen him do in Cleveland, New England, Chicago, and Houston. Kaepernick, at this point in his career, has not shown that he can do that.

Rise of the Shotgun Football

Kyle Shanahan when he was in Atlanta, with Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan

The NFL will continue to evolve, and its on coaches to keep up, to draw up and scheme plays in ways that will continually help and make the best of use of their players while keeping defenses off balance. Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay understand this, and their perspectives have brought a youthful energy into two teams and two offenses that simply haven’t been that good in the recent past. If the beginning of 2017 is any indication, Shanahan and McVay won’t be going away anytime soon.

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The Bucs, Roberto Aguayo, and Drafting Kickers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have apparently decided to give up on their young kicker after just one full season. They released him today, after he missed a 47 yard field goal and an extra point in last night’s preseason game (the Bucs first game of the preseason).

However you spin it, this does not reflect well on the Buccaneers organization. They drafted Aguayo in the second round, and that in and of itself is a questionable move because kickers rarely are drafted that high. Now combine that with the fact that they traded up to get Aguayo, and this all comes off as a big waste of draft capital and very questionable decision making by the organization. This isn’t really hindsight either considering the move was widely criticized by just about everyone at the time. And to cut him just a year in? What could the thinking possibly be behind all this?

The short version, from Tampa’s point of view, is likely something like this: They thought they were getting an elite, top level kicker in Aguayo that would likely be with them for a while. After a season, they realized he wasn’t that guy, and decided to cut their losses and move on.

On the surface that may make sense, but the reality is more complicated and points to some problematic thinking on Tampa’s end.

First, there’s the initial pick, and it was questionable for two reasons: One was a misunderstanding of the value of kickers in general, and the other was just poor scouting on Aguayo himself.

Chuck Zodda, kicking guru at insidethepylon, did a couple pieces explaining why drafting kickers high, regardless of how good they are, simply isn’t worth it in terms of value, and that Aguayo would be no different. He talks about how the difference between an average kicker and an elite kicker simply doesn’t make up for the draft resources spent getting a kicker in the early rounds, considering how much availability there is at the kicker position. Teams can easily find a good enough kicker after the draft or in free agency. Zodda also talks about the mental pressure that comes with being a kicker drafted high–as you are expected to be good right away–and how this would likely negatively impact Aguayo (which it seemingly did).

These are valid points, but to me, the more important problem with this pick is that it reflected a lack of understanding of where and how to find good kickers in this league. The best kickers, historically, have not been high draft picks. What do Adam Vinatieri, Justin Tucker, Phil Dawson, Matt Bryant, David Akers, Matt Prater, Ryan Longwell, Steven Hauschka, Dan Bailey, Jay Feely, Shayne Graham, Robbie Gould, Rob Bironas, Lawrence Tynes, Chris Boswell, and Garrett Hartley have in common? They were all undrafted. The Bucs talked up the importance of kickers in drafting Aguayo, citing the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski as an example. But no one’s doubting the importance of having a reliable kicker, and if Aguayo were to be a top tier guy for them for the next 10-15 years, I would say he’s absolutely worth the pick. The problem with that is that those types of kickers typically have not been found in the second round.

Mike Nugent I believe is the most recent kicker before Aguayo to be drafted in the second round or higher. He was a second round pick in 2005. He bounced around the Jets, Bucs, and Cardinals before finally settling in with the Bengals from 2010-2016. With Cincinnati he was a solid, but rarely spectacular kicker. He was cut last year after he couldn’t stop missing the now longer extra points.

Alex Henery was drafted in the fourth round by the Eagles in 2011, and I believe that he was the most accurate college kicker of all time at the time he was drafted. He is now out of the league. For some reason, kicking success in college doesn’t really translate to the NFL.

To be fair, there are some examples of drafted kickers being successful, although rarely that high. Stephen Gostkowski was drafted in the 4th round, and Nate Kaeding was drafted in the 3rd round. And of course the shining example is Sebastian Janikowski, drafted by the Raiders in the first round in 2000, and still kicking for them. But even Janikowski, as good as he has been and as much as he’s stabilized the position for them, has never quite been in the Tucker/Gostkowski/Bailey top tier, I would say. I think an even better example (one not brought up during the Aguayo talks, probably because he was drafted so long ago), is Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions, who was a second round pick in 1992. He played for Detroit from 1992-2012 and currently holds the record for most years played with a single team. And shockingly, they never took him off kickoffs, like the Colts did with Adam Vinatieri.

Still, these success stories are few and far between when compared with the number of successful kickers that have been undrafted. The fact that good kickers aren’t typically found in high rounds, the fact that kicking success in college doesn’t usually translate to the pros, the pressure that comes with being a highly drafted picker, and the fact that the Bucs traded up for Aguayo, which likely only increased the pressure on him to perform, all made it unlikely that Aguayo would experience success with the Bucs.

Then there’s Aguayo himself and the mistakes the Bucs made in the scouting process with him specifically. Aguayo holds the record for best field goal percentage in ACC history and third best percentage in NCAA history, not an easy feat and certainly not one which I’m trying to diminish. But when scouting any player (not just kickers), the focus should not just be on how they did in college, but how their game projects to the NFL. Aguayo played on a really good FSU team, and a lot of his kicks came in low pressure blowouts. Additionally, they were mostly short kicks, and Aguayo, despite his high accuracy percentage, struggled from distance in college. Aguayo also has really unusual mechanics and a really unorthodox/strange swing. Obviously each kicker has their own style and it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as it makes it through the uprights, but you still have to be weary of these things, because unorthodox mechanics at any position, though they may work in some cases, have a higher likelihood of causing problems. Chuck Zodda did a great mechanical breakdown of Aguayo pre-draft here, and revisited it again after last season here. I think Aguayo’s swing can work if he gets it under control and can find more consistency in his movements. But it will be tough. He’s too all over the place right now. His aim is terrible. There are too many moving parts that differ from swing to swing and not enough overall balance in his movements. His swing through the ball reminds me a bit of Dupkin Hopkins’; they are both very aggressive and that can lead to accuracy and control problems. But his setup, approach, and swing plane are also all less conventional than those of Hopkins. He did it in college so it’s not like it can’t work, but again, it’s tough to succeed with such an unconventional motion. And its also not a concise motion like Adam Vinatieri’s. That makes it tougher to be consistent from kick to kick, There are a lot of moving parts so if just one of those is off, the whole kick is off.

Lastly, let’s talk about the Bucs and their decision to cut Aguayo. Obviously I won’t sugarcoat it, Aguayo wasn’t good last year. He made 22 of 31 field goals for an accuracy percentage of 71 percent, good for worst in the league, and his longest make of the season was only 43 yards. Apparently after his two missed kicks last night and watching him throughout training camp, the Bucs had seen enough.

I don’t know if Aguayo would have become a good kicker with the Bucs. But I do know it’s unreasonable to expect any kicker to be good in just one season. Adam Vinatieri and Sebastian Janikowski both struggled in their first seasons. Kickers, like most positions, need the opportunity to work through their mistakes.

Kicker is an important position and a team with playoff aspirations has to be able to trust their kicker, so I get why they did this. Nick Folk, the former Jets kicker the Bucs will presumably be moving forward with, is no Justin Tucker, but he’s a reliable vet who will hold down the fort and can be trusted for the time being. (The same could have been said for Connor Barth before the Bucs cut him for Aguayo, but whatever…)

But the more alarming part of this is what an utter waste of draft resources this move was. It’s okay to admit you made a mistake, which they clearly felt they did. But he’s a year in. His career’s not over. If you’re going to invest that kind of draft capital–which they did, there’s no going backwards–why not give him a chance to correct himself, learn, and get better? You already spent the pick so you might as well. If after a few years–or even if you gave him until midseason, heck even if you just gave him the rest of the preseason–he still wasn’t good, at least you can know you tried. But by cutting Aguayo, that pick they traded up to get has basically gone down the drain. It’s not the end of the world, and if the Bucs make the playoffs no one will be talking about this, but it’s still a waste and still reflects poorly on management.

As for Aguayo, it was always going to be tough with this kind of pressure that came with being such a high pick. It’s definitely possible he rebounds on a new team with less of that pressure. Kickers often end up bouncing around teams before getting the opportunity to start and settle in. Steven Hauschka is the best example. He was on the Vikings, Ravens, Falcons, Lions, Las Vegas Locomotives (I’m assuming that’s Arena Football but don’t ask because I don’t know…), and Broncos before becoming one of the best kickers in the league during his 6 year run with Seattle. (He signed with Buffalo this year, a lone bright spot for them after Seattle made the questionable move of letting him go..) Other examples include Billy Cundiff, Nick Novak, and Shaun Suisham. McManus and Boswell bounced around practice squads a bit as well before settling into their respective starting roles. It was certainly a tough start for Aguayo, but it’s not over yet.

As for the Bucs, what lesson have we learned? Perhaps you shouldn’t trade up to draft a kicker if you haven’t scouted him properly and are going to let him go after one season. Maybe even better, perhaps you just shouldn’t trade up to draft a kicker.

Also, this just in, Justin Tucker is still amazing.

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The Bears Release Robbie Gould

In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears have parted ways with their longtime kicker, Robbie Gould. The move comes less than a week before the start of the season. Gould was Chicago’s all time leading scorer with 1207 points and was the most accurate kicker in franchise history. He had been with the team since 2005, and currently ranks ninth all time in career field goal accuracy percentage at 85.449%. <pfref>

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Robbie Gould is the Bears all time Leading Scorer

 

Gould hit on 33 of 39 field goals last year, good for an accuracy percentage of 84.6%, ranked 19th in the league. But he had crucial misses in back to back weeks: In week 13, Gould had ugly misses of 40 and 36 yards, the latter of which would have won the game. Then, in week 14, Gould missed a game-tyer late from 51 (career long is 58). The Bears went on to lose both games. They finished the season 6-10. That’s a potential extra two wins cost because of your kicker. Coaches have very little patience for that stuff.

Gould also appeared to be getting progressively worse on his kickoffs. According to teamrankings.com, his 46.99 touchback percentage ranked 27th in the league. And according to footballdb.com, his average kickoff distance of 60.3 yards ranked dead last. (Although, Bleacher Report’s Kicker Rankings have him at 63.4 yards, so not positive what the correct number is there.) This was a kicker once known for his strong leg; although to be fair, leg strength on field goals doesn’t always translate to kickoffs, and vice versa. Gould did, however, try to increase his weight over the offseason, which I can’t imagine would be for any reason other than adding strength.

The fall for kickers is often swift and unforgiving. Billy Cundiff used to be a pro bowl kicker for the Ravens. He was never anywhere near as good as their current kicker, Justin Tucker, but he hit on 26/29 (89.7%) in 2010, good for sixth in the league. He also led the league with a ridiculous 40 touchbacks in 2010, back when kickoffs were still from the 30 yard line. That was a record for kickoffs after the instatement of the K-ball rule. The Ravens signed him to a long term extension after the 2010 season.

We all know where this is going. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Cundiff missed a 32 yard chip shot to send the game to overtime in Foxborough with 15 seconds left, and the Patriots went on to lose to the Giants in the Superbowl (hehe). He was released before next season started.

I feel bad for Cundiff, as I don’t really entirely blame him for missing the kick. Never talked about is the fact that the scoreboard at Foxborough was actually behind a down, causing Cundiff to think it was only 3rd down when it was actually 4th. This caused Cundiff to be late coming onto the field, as the replay shows him running to get to the play with the clock at 15 seconds and counting. As a result, he likely rushed the kick, causing him to over-rotate his hips and miss wide left. Kickers are creatures of routine like no other. Any time that routine is off, chaos can ensue.

Ultimately though, none of this mattered. The NFL is a results oriented business. Cundiff was cut. He kicked here and there for the Redskins and Browns, but never kicked higher than 80 percent in a season after the Ravens cut him. He’s currently unsigned.

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Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2011

 

Blair Walsh also had a big time miss in the playoffs that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Walsh missed a go ahead 27 yarder with 26 seconds left in the game in last year’s divisional round vs Seattle. But the punter, Jeff Locke, gave Walsh the laces for the second time that day. Who knows whether this truly affected that specific kick or not, but anyone who’s seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective knows that giving the kicker the laces is a no-no. The Vikings chose to stick with their young kicker, but a few weeks ago in the preseason at Seattle, he missed a longer kick with almost the exact same trajectory. It’s just one kick, but the jury is still out as to whether Walsh will bounce back or not.

Bouncing back as a kicker is tough. The position is so mental. Josh Scobee played ten years with the Jaguars, but he was released in 2014. He was also released by the Steelers last year after going just 6/10, and missing two late kicks against Baltimore that could have put the game away. He was injured last year, but again, it’s results that matter in this business.

Good kickers are around for so long, due to the non-contact nature of the position, that they often become part of the identity of the team, as well as some of the more well known faces of the league. Adam Vinatieri, currently the oldest player in the NFL, has been playing in the league since 1996. That’s absolutely ancient for this league. He’s older than the Giants new coach, for crying out loud! Gould has been around for a while and has been one of the better kickers in the league. I feel bad for Gould. It would have been nice to see him retire a Bear. Apparently, he struggled during the preseason. And like I said, he wasn’t great last year. I know it’s a brutal business, but the Bears could have at least given him a chance to rebound. If they were worried about money, they could have asked him to take a pay cut. That’s what the Packers did with Mason Crosby after his horrendous 2012 season in which he hit just 21 of 33 for 63.6%. I was surprised when they didn’t cut him, but he bounced back nicely and has been above 81% every season since. I believe he was just extended.

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Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 against Brett Favre’s Packers (Left). Vinatieri, now a Colt (Right), continues to be one of the best kickers in the NFL today.

 

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Phil Dawson, 41, after a successful career with the Browns, continues to be an asset with the 49ers.

 

Do kickers ever find life on new teams after such long tenures with their first team? David Akers, after 11 years with the Eagles, had a great season with the 49ers in 2011, but struggled in 2012 and was cut after the season ended. He is now retired. Phil Dawson, one of the best kickers in the league, was released after 13 years with the Browns and is now in his 4th season with the 49ers. He is still going strong. (The Niners did, however, take him off kickoff duty, just like the Colts did with Vinatieri in 2009.) Olindo Mare stands out as similar to the Gould situation because, although he, unlike Gould, bounced around teams for a lot of his career, Mare missed some late crucial field goals in 2011 for the 6-10 Panthers, and was cut the year after. (Unlike Gould, Mare was a great kickoff man that year.) The Panthers replaced Mare with Graham Gano, a guy who’s had a really nice turnaround in Carolina after a few terrible seasons in Washington. Gano’s different however because he was still young when he went to Carolina and hadn’t been with Washington for that long. He also made some really noticeable mechanical changes after coming to Carolina; he looks like a different kicker. Gould doesn’t struggle mechanically. He’s always been a really smooth and easy kicker. He just needs to make the kicks. And Gould is 34 years old. Even though like I said, age isn’t as much as an issue for kickers in terms of the body wearing down, it’s still the case that when older kickers start to falter, it usually tends to be pretty final. Kicking is just a position that’s so mental, and a position where there’s just not a lot of tolerance for error.

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Robbie Gould had a great ten years with the Bears. I wish him all the best. If the Giants do end up getting rid of Josh Brown because of the recent domestic abuse incidents that are starting to come to light, I would be happy to give Gould a shot in Blue.

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