SCOTTSDALE – Over the last five decades, the football world has seen some of the biggest moments and nail-biting games come down to a field goal.
Adam Vinatieri kicked two game-winners to propel the New England Patriots’ dynasty in the early 2000s, Jim O’Brien cemented the Baltimore Colts as champions with a 32-yarder in Super Bowl V, and Lawrence Tynes hit two winners of his own in two separate NFC championships to send the New York Giants to the big game.
Just recently, we witnessed the Kansas City Chiefs’ Harrison Butker send his team to Super Bowl 57, drilling the game-winning field goal in the AFC Championship Game from 45 yards away.
But at one point or another, football fans have also watched a key kick sail wide left, wide right or even come up short of the crossbar and thought to themselves, “I could’ve easily made that.”
It doesn’t look all that hard on TV, especially with how smoothly the process of snap, hold and kick is executed by any given special teams unit in the NFL during the regular season. But, in reality, it’s one of the more complicated aspects of the game.
“I’d toss them a football and say, ‘Do it yourself and find out,” eighth-year Chiefs long snapper James Winchester said of those experts on the couch screaming into the void.
It all starts with the delivery by the long snapper. His job is to send the ball back to the holder as fast and as accurately as he possibly can while delivering a perfect spiral. If one aspect is out of whack, the entire operation could be at risk.
“It’s all about how it comes off your fingers,” Winchester said Wednesday during media availability for the 2023 Super Bowl. He compared the release of the ball from the fingertips to a jugs machine, which is what teams use to simulate passes and punts for receivers and return men.
“If you put a football in a jugs machine, if your fingers are even coming off of that ball, you’re going to get a spiral,” Winchester said. “But if you have more pressure with one hand or you’re 80/20, that ball is going to come out with some wobble.”
To prevent the wobbling effect, Winchester will practice his release in different ways to keep the feel for that release. “We practice spinning it over our heads, we’ll go under-hand, lay down on the ground – just to see how it comes off your fingers,” Winchester said.
Getting the ball out quickly and sharply are keys to getting the kick in the air, but there is another variable before the kicker can drill one through the uprights.
From training camp all the way to the Super Bowl, snappers and holders work and practice together to get, as Winchester called it, the “perfect laces.” You may have seen the film, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and recall the “laces out” dilemma between fictional kicker Ray Finkle (or is it Lt Lois Einhorn?) and the real-life Dan Marino, his holder. As crazy as Finkle was about the missed kick, his gripes were real.
The smallest things can have the biggest impact on the outcome of a game. No one in football may have to worry about the minute details of their position more than the holder, the one who’s squatted behind the line waiting to receive the snap.
For instance, if the holder reaches his hands out too far for the ball, or lets it come to his hands for a fraction too long, the location of the laces can be thrown off by the poor timing, causing a traditional end-over-end kick to go one way or the other.
To have that perfect timing, the hard work that goes into it has to be constant. “We put in hundreds of reps a week,” said Tommy Townsend, Kansas City’s All-Pro punter and holder. “I’ll work my holds all the time. Harrison (Butker) will just sit there and spin me balls to catch and put down.”
In those drills, Townsend will sit – or kneel – there working on catching the ball, placing it down and spinning the laces out in front to where the kicker would have a clean strike zone – all of which occurs in the blink of an eye.
Townsend described the position as “very reactionary.” It’s all about adjusting to different conditions – whether it’s wind at your back, in your face or crossing the field, if there’s snow or water on the ground, or it’s the snap itself being a little bit out of position.
“Once that ball comes at me, it’s just catch and put down in my mind,” Townsend said.
So, after the countless hours and endless reps taken by the long snapper and the holder pay off with a clean snap-hold delivery, it all comes down to the legs of the operation. Or, in this case, a singular leg.
“What we do is such a simple thing,” Butker said.
“Because of that, what’s going to separate you from the competition is super small. I need to take all the time I can to be the very best at being a kicker,” he added.
Butker, a Super Bowl champion who has logged over 760 total points in his six-year career, is no stranger to big moments like his last game against Cincinnati in the conference championship. In those big moments, he’s had to rely on Winchester and Townsend to put the ball in the perfect spot in order for him to do his job.
“James wants to be the best at snapping the ball, Tommy wants to be the best holder he can be,” Butker said. “They take a lot of pride in what they do. I’m very grateful to be in a room like that.”
Butker and his “guys,” as he called Townsend and Winchester, “put in that work in the film room, on the field and visualizing (the kick)” to be the best at that “simple thing” of snapping, holding and kicking.
“It definitely is a three-man operation, plus the offensive line to protect that kick from getting blocked,” Butker said.
Once the kick goes up, all anyone can do is watch. (And pray, or meditate, or scream.)
Regardless of the outcome, the unit will go back and watch the kick on film to try and identify points of improvement for the next one. The Chiefs special teams coordinator, Dave Toub, has full confidence that his group sees those flaws for themselves.
“I don’t have to worry about the work that they put in,” Toub said.
“These guys know exactly what they did wrong.. If the kick goes right, they know what they did. If it goes left, they know what they did.”
If it’s something a little more specific, like leaning too far left or right, or a misplaced plant foot, Toub will step in and let them know.
Otherwise, his veteran snap-hold-kick crew has the craft down to a science.
If Super Bowl 57 comes down to a Chiefs’ last-second field goal, just know that James Winchester, Tommy Townsend and Harrison Butker will be ready for the moment, and coach Toub will be watching with peace of mind.
“I’m very fortunate to have those three guys, because that’s the base of the whole thing,” Toub said.