Countdown to Canton: Naming the top 10 kickers of all time


Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts

Morten Andersen walks into the Pro Football Hall of Fame early next month, so we figured the time is just about right to honor him … and his position.

Following our practice of the past week, your Talk of Fame Network hosts, Rick Gosselin, Clark Judge and Ron Borges, teamed with NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal to compile a list of the 10 greatest kickers of all time.

And this was our closest vote yet.

In fact, we had a tie at the top between Adam Vinatieri and Andersen, with Vinatieri winning a photo finish based on a tiebreaker of first-place votes. He had two. Andersen had one. We also had a tie at third between Hall-of-Famer Jan Stenerud and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, the only active kicker on this list.

Want more? Keep reading.

10 and 9. (tie) GARY ANDERSON

The NFL’s second-leading scorer, Anderson was so good he was … like Morten Andersen and Jim Bakken … named to two all-decade teams. He was a member of the 1980s’ and 1990s’ units, and there’s a good reason: Accuracy. He seldom missed. In fact, in 1998 he set a league record by never missing in a regular-season game, making all 30 of his field-goal tries and all extra-point attempts. When he retired, Anderson was the NFL’s all-time leading scorer. A four-time All-Pro, he’s second in career field goals, third in extra points and second in longevity, with his 23 years behind only Andersen. The all-time leading scorer for the Steelers, he is in that franchise’s Hall of Fame.

PETE GOGOLAK

Widely considered the central figure in the adoption of soccer-style kicking, Gogolak and brother Charlie of the Redskins and Patriots, revolutionized the position. And for that alone, he must be included among the best and brightest at this position. Gogolak also ignited “the war between the leagues” when, after playing his first two seasons with the AFL Buffalo Bills, he jumped to the NFL and New York Giants where he went on to become their all-time leading scorer. He also set club records for most PATs in one game (eight), most consecutive PATs (133) and most field goals attempted (219) and most made (126). “For historical perspective alone,” said Gosselin, “Gogolak belongs on this list.”

8. NICK LOWERY

Photo courtesy o Wikimedia Commons

He makes it largely on the basis of Turney’s first-place vote. “He led the NFL in field-goal percentage in the 1980s,” Turney said, “the decade of the 1990s and from 1985-95. He also had good distance, hitting a 58-yarder, and had the most points ever above the league average during his career.” Nicknamed “Nick the Kick,” the former Dartmouth College star retired ranked first in field-goal percentage and first in field goals, period. Seven times during his career he was chosen All-Pro, including twice as a first teamer, and in 2009 he was named to the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame. As Turney pointed out, Lowery was the most accurate kicker in the NFL 1984-97 and held the league’s all-time accuracy record for 10 of those seasons.

7. JASON HANSON

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions

A Detroit Lion for 21 years, Hanson holds the league record for most field goals (189) over 40 yards and most over 50 (52). Furthermore, he’s the only player to score more than 2,000 points for one franchise. He kicked 17 game-winning field goals, nine in overtime and eight in four quarters of play, and was extraordinarily accurate. In 2003 he hit 22 of 23 field goals, a league-leading 95.7 percent rate of success. Five years later he hit 21 of 22, including 8 of 8 from 50 yards and beyond. He’s fourth in career field goals, fourth in career scoring and fifth in career games. “Hanson played 21 games, all with the same team — the Detroit Lions,” said Gosselin. “That’s an NFL record. That may be his greatest achievement. Kickers can last 20 years, but rarely do they stay with one team.”

6. JIM BAKKEN

This is all you need to know about the Cardinals’ star: He was so good that he was chosen to two all-decade teams, the 1960s and the 1970s. Only two other kickers can say that: Hall-of-Famer Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson. A four-time Pro Bowl choice and two-time All-Pro, Bakken hit seven of nine field goals in a 1967 game vs. Pittsburgh, a record that stood until it was broken by Rob Bironas 40 years later when he hit eight. Bakken led the league in field goals twice, led it in accuracy twice and led it in scoring once. “No range,” Turney said of Bakken, “but he was more accurate than all of the straight-on kickers of his era. Clutch kicks, too.” When he retired, Bakken was the third leading scorer in NFL history and today still ranks as the most prolific scorer ever for the Cardinals.

5. LOU GROZA

The kicking and points leader when he retired in 1967, Groza (who was a full-time offensive tackle) had such accuracy and strength as a placekicker that he helped turn that position into a specialty. Nicknamed “The Toe,” he set numerous records for distance and numbers of field goals during a 21-year career. In fact, in his first season with the Browns he set a pro football benchmark for field goals and points. “Anywhere from 40 to 50 yards, he was a weapon,” said former teammate Tommy James. In the 1951 championship game vs. the Los Angeles Rams, Groza nailed a 52-yard field goal, the longest field in Super Bowl or NFL championship game history for 42 years. In 1953, he made 88.5 percent of his attempts, a record that stood for 28 years. In 1954 he was named the league’s MVP. Groza led the league in field goals a record five times and set NFL marks for accuracy, distance and sheer numbers of field goals in his first three years in the league. Groza was named to the 1950s’ all-decade team, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has one of his shoes on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. What’s more, the NCAA annually names its winners of the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best placekickers.

4 and 3 (tie). JUSTIN TUCKER

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The most accurate kicker in NFL history (minimum 100 tries), Tucker hits on nearly 90 percent of his attempts. Furthermore, he hits from all distances, last year connecting on all 10 of his field-goal tries from 50 or more yards, including three in one game. His 10 field goals of 50-plus yards tie an NFL record. He’s the first kicker to hit from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game and holds Ravens’ records for most points in a season (141), most field goals in a season (38), most field goals in one game (6) and longest field goal ever (61 yards). Tucker last season converted 38 of 39 field-goal attempts, and was a weapon (again) on kickoffs. In fact, 64 percent of his career kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. The Ravens think so much of the guy that they made him their franchise player prior to last year before signing him to four-year, $16.8 million extension in July.

JAN STENERUD

Photo courtesy of Kansas City Chiefs

The only pure placekicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame until Andersen was named this year, the Norwegian-born Stenerud was one of the first to use the soccer-style technique developed by Pete Gogolak — and one of the best ever, nailing 70 percent of his attempts his first three seasons … or when the rest of the league was hitting on 53 percent. “He could boom kickoffs and field goals,” said Borges, “and that made him a weapon.” A seven-time All-Pro, he was named to the league’s 75th anniversary team, had his number retired by the Kansas City Chiefs and is a member of both the Chiefs’ and Green Bay Packers’ Halls of Fame. Stenerud’s strength was accuracy and distance, with the former Montana State star nailing an NFL-record 16 straight field goals in 1969. That was the season he also launched a 48-yard field goal in the Chiefs’ 23-7 defeat of Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, the longest field goal in a Super Bowl until Steve Christie hit a 54-yarder in Super Bowl XXVIII 24 years later. Stenerud had three field goals in that game, sufficient to beat the Vikings on his own. “He makes you feel you can’t give up a thing because he’s so dangerous from anywhere inside the 50,” said Vikings’ defensive lineman Carl Eller afterward. “I think (Stenerud) was the most valuable player in the game.”

2. (tiebreaker) MORTEN ANDERSEN

Photo courtesy of kansas City Chiefs

The second pure placekicker to reach Canton (Stenerud was the first), Andersen not only was the best at his position for years; he was so good he was named the first-team all-decade kicker for the 1980s and 1990s. He’s the league’s all-time leading scorer. He made more field goals than anyone in NFL history. He appeared in more games than anyone in NFL history. And he kicked more game-winning field goals (103) than anyone in NFL history. He’s in the Danish American Football Federation Hall of Fame. He’s in the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame. He’s in the Louisiana Spots Hall of Fame. He’s in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. And soon, very soon, he will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame … and for good reason: He was a dangerous and accurate weapon. Plus, he could hit from anywhere, giving coaches the courage to try field goals in excess of 50 yards. In fact, in 1995, he nailed three, an NFL record that has been tied but that still stands. Andersen never wavered in a career that spanned 25 seasons, and saved his best for last — hitting on 25 of 28 field goals when he was 47 and in his last NFL season. He also nailed four in one game that year, the oldest kicker in league history to do that, and had a league-record 23 seasons with 75 or more points.

  1. (tiebreaker) ADAM VINATIERI

    The all-decade choice for the 2000s, Vinatieri is still kicking … and kicking well … at age 44. In fact, last season he set an NFL record by hitting his 44th consecutive field goal before missing a 42-yarder in Week 11, and in 2014 he hit 30 of 31 tries. Vinatieri five times in his career has connected on 90 percent or more of his field-goal tries, including two of the past three years, and scored 100 or more points an NFL-record 19 times. He holds numerous league records, including most overtime field goals (12), most career playoff points (227) and most field goals in a single postseason (14). A four-time Super Bowl winner and the NFL’s third all-time leading scorer, Vinatieri is known for making dramatic, game-winning field goals — earning him the nickname, “Mr. Clutch.” His game-tying 45-yard field goal in a blizzard during the 2001 playoffs is considered one of the greatest of all time, and his 48-yarder on the last play of the game won Super Bowl XXXVI. Two years later, in an almost identical situation, he hit a 41-yarder on the last snap to beat Carolina in Super Bowl XXVIII, making him the only kicker in Super Bowl history to be the deciding factor in two games. Vinatieri split his career with the Colts and New England, scoring over 1,000 points for each franchise, and the Patriots thought enough of him that they haven’t re-issued his No. 4 jersey since he left the team. The Colts think so much of him that, prior to last season, they signed him to a two-year, $6-million contract … when Vinatieri was 43. “I still think I can help our team,” he said earlier this year, “and why not keep going?”

    OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: Mark Moseley, Matt Stover, Fred Cox, Garo Yepremian, Dan Bailey, Tony Fritsch, Sebastian Janikowski.

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2 Comments

  1. Tom K
    July 15, 2017
    Reply

    Good list. I agree with just about all of it. Made a few slight changes. Only thing that surprised me is no George Blanda in the Top 10 or Honorable Mentions. Why is that?

  2. bachslunch
    July 17, 2017
    Reply

    Actually, I agree with John’s assessment of Nick Lowery, and I’m apparently not alone on this. Chase Stuart did a ranking of kickers adjusted for era and distance in 2015, and Lowery ranks no. 1 on it. Here’s a link:

    http://www.footballperspective.com/the-greatest-field-goal-kickers-of-all-time-ii-part-iii-career-rankings/

    It’s no secret that I’m not heavily on board with the idea of Adam Vinatieri being a HoFer, never mind being considered the greatest kicker of all time. Stuart for example has him at no. 41 all time, at least as of two years ago. The reason is that in adjusting for era, you look at how well the player did in relation to his colleagues at the time. Vinatieri indeed has good accuracy, but relative to his contemporaries he doesn’t stand out significantly, plus longer distance kicks play an issue here. Here’s what Stuart has to say regarding Lowery:

    “Lowery played from 1978 to 1996. The length of his average field goal attempt was 36.6 yards, and the length of his average made field goal was 34.8 yards. Lowery attempted 479 field goals in his career; based on the distance of those kicks and the era in which he played, we would expect an average kicker to have made about 337.6 of those attempts. Instead, Lowery made 383 of them, a whopping 45.4 field goals above expectation. Thought of another way, Lowery’s expected field goal rate was 70.5%, while his actual was 80.0%, so he was successful an extra 9.5% of the time he lined up to kick. That’s remarkable. In short, Lowery was the most valuable field goal kicker in NFL history.”

    and Vinatieri:

    “Adam Vinatieri does not fare all that well in this system. What makes Vinatieri better than Sebastian Janikowski? The two are contemporaries, and while it’s easy to note that Vinatieri has a better field goal rate, consider the other data in the table: Janikowski’s average made kick is 37.0 yards, significantly higher than Vinatieri’s average (34.3). The same goes for average attempt (39.2 to 35.7). There’s not much of an era adjustment going on here, obviously, but longer kicks is why Jankowski’s been about 1.2% above average compared to Vinatieri’s 0.8% rate.”

    No question that narrative plays a role for Vinatieri here.

    But that brings up a bigger issue: how heavy a role should narrative play in HoF cases? It’s a good question. In fact, several of the players sometimes cited as PFHoF mistakes have a heavy narrative component to their argument: Joe Namath, Paul Hornung, Lynn Swann, Richard Dent, Floyd Little, Fred Dean, Bob Hayes, Alex Wojciechowicz, and Ken Stabler among them. And of course one of the biggest problems with narrative is that it’s subjective and has the potential to be swayed by “special interest” lobbying. I’m not one who easily buys into narrative, but then again, I also hold solid sympathy with sabermetric arguments for the BBHoF.

    I’ve wrestled with this issue for some time now, and have come to a kind of compromise position. If electing Vinatieri to the HoF is what it takes to get Lowery in, I’m okay with it. It doesn’t sit perfectly with the purist side of me, but sometimes being a pragmatist better gets the results you want. I would just ask the following with regard to narrative use:

    -keep it as free as possible from “special interest” lobbying. Despite what some partisan folks may think, having been a member of your favorite team does not mean they automatically gained a HoF birthright.

    -give some evaluation to how accurate the narrative boost really is. What makes Fred Dean arguably one of the worst HoF choices is that his pioneer status as the first “elephant” pass rusher isn’t even correct.

    -put solid focus on the “numbers guys” too: Harold Jackson as well as Lynn Swann, Kenny Anderson as well as Joe Namath, Nick Lowery as well as Adam Vinatieri.

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