By Rich Kurtzman
The kickoff specialist is a dying breed; an endangered species in the National Football League.
Why? Simply, placekickers are adored for their big legs, the ability to boot the ball deep into the night which captures the imagination of fans young and old. Accuracy used to be the major determinate in picking one kicker over another, but the trend of “bigger is better” continues.
The reason is two-fold. Firstly, a guy who can kick a ball through the end zone on nearly every attempt is a weapon because it guarantees the opponent will start at the 20 yard line and not with a short field. Secondly, big-legged kickers give the offense the advantage of not having to march all the way to the red zone for a field goal attempt.
For years, it was Jason Elam doing it all, and then Matt Prater took over in the Mile High City, complete with his NFL record tying 64-yard field goal make in 2013. But Prater ran into problems with the league’s substance abuse policy in which one more time being caught would result in a year-long ban. Beside that, his kicking came into question during Super Bowl XLVIII; one kickoff was short of the end zone, bounced and set up Percy Harvin with a return touchdown that broke the Broncos back.
So, Denver moved on. They traded for Brandon McManus and cut Prater. But, while McManus’ leg was massive, both on kickoffs and field goals, his accuracy wasn’t nearly true enough. McManus was cut and Connor Barth was brought in to kick. The problem with Barth? His leg is small compared to NFL standards and the Broncos can’t have every kickoff landing in the field of play where opposing teams have an opportunity at a return. Especially since Denver’s kickoff coverage unit may just be the worst part of the team. Barth’s short kickoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs sent off alarms at Dove Valley, though his 5-5 kicking performance that week was a sign his accuracy was on-point.
The Broncos decided to bring back McManus for the kickoffs, keep Barth for field goals, and we can’t forget about punter Britton Colquitt. That makes three kickers; three men who have one singular job on a team of only 53 players.
Denver’s able to do so, and we’ll see how well they can do as the stretch run turns into the playoffs, due to a great amount of depth at nearly every other position. John Elway’s construction of the team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender has paid off in their three straight AFC West championships and the team is in place to win a fourth straight this season. It also allows him to gamble by bringing in a kickoff specialist, at least for now.
Last Sunday, McManus booted 4-5 kickoffs into or through the end zone, with one being returned for 27 yards. Against Kansas City, all eight of Barth’s kickoffs were returned. Giving the opposing team a 20 percent chance of returning the ball rather than 100 percent seems smart, no?
Apparently, three legs are better than two.
If McManus’ leg is like a Big Bertha driver, Barth’s swing is smooth like a sand wedge. Let them do what they do best, and all together the Broncos will be in good hands. Or is that, good feet?
Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.