Call it Generation Money.
On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the two second-year kickers will face off to show who’s better. It’s one of the rare times when each team’s kickers may be the stars.
Kicking effectiveness is at an all-time high in the NFL.
After 13 weeks, there are 13 NFL kickers that have hit 90 percent or more of their field-goal attempts. By the end of last year, there were only eight at or over 90 percent. The year before, there were four.
Tucker leads the league in successful field goals this season with 31. He’s fourth in percentage (93.5). Walsh is coming off a game-winning 34-yard field goal against Chicago and is at 88 percent.
Last year, Tucker posted the second-best field-goal rate in NFL history for a rookie (90.9 percent). He only behind Walsh, who connected on 92.1 percent of his boots and went to the Pro Bowl.
“The art has been perfected,” said Head Coach John Harbaugh, a former longtime special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“There are more coaches out there teaching guys from a young age, and these guys have perfected the skill. It’s better than it’s ever been.”
In general, the Ravens point to the specialization and focus on kicking as the reason why kickers have become so much better.
The Ravens are one of many NFL teams who now employ a kicking consultant in addition to a special teams coordinator. Randy Brown, the mayor of Evesham Township, N.J., frequently makes the two-hour drive to Owings Mills to work with Tucker and his field-goal team of long snapper
But the individualized coaching starts way before players reach the NFL. It’s no longer the days where high school teams simply find the position player who happens to kick the best. Kickers are coached now more than ever.
“I think one of the reasons is that we have guys coming out [of college] that have trained as kickers,” Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “I think that there is more help available out there for young men that want to be become football player kickers rather than just soccer players.”
Tucker played soccer and football until he was 15 years old and his father read a Sports Illustrated article that mentioned Doug Blevins, a man with cerebral palsy who tutored kickers, including former Patriots and Colts great Adam Vinatieri. The Tuckers flew Blevins from Virginia to Texas, then later had their son work with him at Emory and Henry College.
It’s not just kickers that get individualized coaching. Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox was attending camps in his youth and teaches them now in the offseason. Long snappers now get college scholarships and increased coaching, showing the importance of the position.
“It used to be a guy that would be able to snap, or it would be a guy that would have to learn while doing something else. Those days are long gone,” Tucker said.
“There’s a trend of having a really good snapper that puts the ball in the same spot with the laces in the same place at a high level of consistency. Morgan and Sam’s operation makes my job so much easier.”
Almost every time Tucker is interviewed after having success, he mentions his long snapper and holder. It’s because kicking is more than a one-man operation. The three work on different aspects of the game every day in practice.
“Those guys can’t be overlooked,” Tucker said. “We get a kick off in 1.3 seconds. The ball is down so fast, then, more often than not, it’s going straight. And we know that.”
Tucker and Walsh are opening doors for other teams to also take chances on young kickers. This offseason, the Dolphins jettisoned former Pro Bowl kicker Dan Carpenter and drafted kicker Caleb Sturgis in the fifth round.
Brown, who also worked with Sturgis, teases the Dolphins rookie that he should send Tucker a part of his salary.
“There used to be a stigma of having a young kicker,” Tucker said. “It’s because when you’re under two minutes, you don’t know what you’re going to get. They haven’t proven they can do it.”
Tucker and Walsh are proving the gamble is well worth it. There is a bit of a competition between the two of them, however.
The first met at kicking camps in high school when both were trying to measure themselves against the rest of the country and attract scholarships. They kicked against each other in the Army All-American Bowl, a prestigious high school All-Star game. Tucker, from Texas, was on the West and Walsh, from Florida, was on the East.
Tucker ended up kicking at Texas and Walsh went to Georgia – two college powerhouses. Both had sparkling collegiate careers, but only one was drafted. Walsh was selected in the sixth round by the Vikings and Tucker signed with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Asked if it that bothered him, Tucker said “of course.”
“That’s kind of the competitive nature of this world that we live in,” he said. “If you’re playing this game, you want to be the best at what you do.”
Statistically, Walsh was just a step ahead of Tucker last year, although he has a huge advantage of kicking in a dome for at least half of his games whereas Tucker is in the harsh climate of the AFC North.
Walsh nailed 35 of 38 field-goal attempts as a rookie last season. Tucker was 30-for-33. Walsh got the Pro Bowl nod while Phil Dawson beat out Tucker in the AFC.
But Tucker had the better ending to his season. He kicked an overtime game winner in Denver and two field goals in the Super Bowl XLVII victory.
“I don’t really care about any of those statistics or streaks,” Tucker said. “The only statistics I think are important are making kicks, period, and winning games.”
Tucker is beating out Walsh this year. Tucker was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November and has booted 27 straight field-goal attempts. He’s in position to go to the Pro Bowl in the AFC.
“I’ll say it like this: it would be great to not go to Hawaii because we’re going to the Meadowlands,” Tucker said.