Feb. 12, 2013
By JONAH ROSENBLUM
Steve Videtich, who ranks second in Arena Football League history in kicking points, extra points and field goals, may have captured the most critical acclaim of his career with a trick kick that landed in his receiver’s hands for a first down while he was with the Milwaukee Mustangs.
“I actually hit him in stride with the kick, and he caught it for a first down,” Videtich said. “After the game, the press wanted to talk to me about it and they were like, ‘Oh my God, that was unbelievable. How did you guys do that?’ and to me I was like, ‘What are you guys talking about? We do this all the time in practice,’ so it was no big deal to me.”
AFL kickers have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. After all, the League differs from other football leagues in that it allows four-point drop kick field goals and two-point drop kick extra points, one of which Geoff Boyer sent through the uprights last season in a game between the Pittsburgh Power and the Milwaukee Mustangs.
“There are a lot of quirks in the Arena Football League and a good portion of them apply to the kicking game,” Videtich said.
The League also prohibits punting, which has led to a number of field-goal attempts mysteriously drifting out of bounds.
“You do that,” Philadelphia Soul Head Coach Clint Dolezel said. “He’s just lined up different. He’s just lined up to basically make a field goal that’s around the 10-yard line going towards out of bounds,” Dolezel said. “You don’t want them to get a chance to touch it. You try to get it into the stands. You know it’s a penalty but we’d rather have that than have them return it or something.”
When it comes to such subtleties of kicking, Dolezel said that he’s glad that he has a veteran to handle the job in Carlos Martinez.
“It’s an art,” Dolezel said. “It’s something that he practices every situation that you’re going to need. That’s why you have a veteran kicker like Carlos.”
Pittsburgh Power kicker Josh Smith recalls lining up from his end zone last year to attempt a 63-yard field goal. The goal was to boot the ball out of bounds, but given that Smith was standing three yards behind the snap, instead of seven, the defense was instantly in his face.
“We tried to do an out of bounds shot in Milwaukee last year,” Smith said. “That was supposed to be a placement shot and then get it as far down field as I could and get some field position because we were backed up so hard. That’s what’s really unique with the indoor Arena game. You have the placement shots for field position. You also have what’s called a pooched field goal.”
Even onside kicks are different in the AFL, according to Smith, who said that in the National Football League, most onside kicks take one high hop. In the AFL, he said that he works on a variety of onside kicks, including a dribbler.
Having a changeup is necessary in the AFL. After all, onside kicks are a way bigger part of the Arena game than they are the outdoor game. The Oakland Raiders led the NFL with just seven onside kicks in 2012, with 29 of 32 teams attempting three or fewer onside kicks. In the AFL, the Raiders would have tied for the second-lowest figure in the League. A whopping 82 percent of AFL teams attempted at least 10 onside kicks in 2012, with Tampa Bay leading the way with 27, nearly four times what the Raiders attempted in 2012.
And while onside kicks are rarely successful in the NFL, some AFL kickers have turned it into an art form. Martinez, for example, converted four of 11 onside kicks for the Georgia Force last season, and 10 teams recovered at least one quarter of their onside kick attempts in 2012. That’s due in no small part to the fact that most onside kicks in the NFL are expected, with one team needing a miracle to stay in the game, while onside kicks are far more common and yet unpredictable in the AFL, where with teams scoring on most drives anyway, an onside kick makes far more sense.
“You have to mix it up every now and then and put the ball in a different place where you think the other team is not expecting it,” Videtich said. “It comes down to improvisation.”
Amazingly, in the AFL, onside kick conversion rates are not all that different from field goal conversion rates. Indeed, the narrow uprights of the League force a kicker to make both physical and mental adjustments.
“I went from kicking on an outdoor goal post for practice to when I started getting signed, well, I can’t do that anymore, that’s too big of a target, so I started kicking at light posts,” Smith said. “I have a couple of fields where there is a nice big outdoor soccer field light post and I’d go there and I’d hit the post. That was my thing: try to hit the post. I figured if I can hit the post, I can put it through the uprights.”
Videtich noted the mental struggle of learning to accept failure.
“Coming from the college background where I was kicking better than 80 percent of my field goals and making all of my extra points and things like that, the mental aspect for me was the hardest thing to get used to in my first year, because in the AFL, you’re going to miss,” Videtich said. “It’s just the way it is. The uprights are so narrow and there are so many kicks that you’re bound to miss. The thing that I’ve always told kickers in the AFL is the key is to make sure that one miss doesn’t turn into two or three misses.”
Whereas NFL kickers are often brought out for field goals ranging from 20 to 60 yards, field goals are not as common in the AFL. With the exception of the Kansas City Command, no Arena team attempted more than 23 field goals in 2012. To put it in context, 30 of 32 NFL teams attempted 24-plus field goals, including 42 attempts by the San Francisco 49ers.
Therefore, while a big leg is critical in the NFL, it’s less important in the AFL.
“It was a big adjustment, the form and everything like that,” Smith said. “It’s not all about power. There are a lot of tweaks to your game with the Arena game. You can really focus on accuracy and not just crushing it every single time because you’ve got a big, wide target.”
As Smith said, it comes down to accuracy – and occasionally, a little bit of trickery. And that’s where the pooched field goal comes in to play.
“That was a really difficult shot to make because you’re not used to not swinging fully through the ball,” Smith said. “Everything you train is just to full swing. You go and you hit the ball all the way through. So, all of the sudden, to relax it a bit and hit this short pooch shot 10, 15 yards was a big adjustment. It took me a little while to really get that in.”
Sanctioned by a clause in the rule book that states that “on a Field Goal attempt not hitting the net, if the ball is caught or recovered by the Kicking team beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team can advance the kicked ball,” Videtich said that he worked on pooched field goals quite a bit in practice.
“We used to do it in practice all the time,” Videtich said, “and probably 50 percent of the time, I would hit the player in stride.”
Making a kicker’s job even more difficult is that many AFL teams share their arenas with NBA and NHL squads. With availability hard to come by, Arena teams often end up having to find somewhere else to practice during the week. While it’s not all that hard to find a football field or a pair of uprights, it’s next to impossible to replicate the tight window and rebound nets of the AFL.
“It’s very rare that you get to practice on your game field or anything that’s even remotely similar,” Videtich said. “A lot of teams have an indoor place where they can go but there’s no Arena-type setup. I’ve always tried to do what I can to replicate as far as kicking, kickoffs, things like that.”
Videtich said that when the Mustangs would head over to their indoor training facility, he would use an exit sign as a target. When he was outdoors, he would seek out a light stand or a flagpole.
“I always felt like if I could find something that is either about the same width as the uprights or if it’s something that’s maybe even smaller than the uprights, I could practice my kicking that way, just as long as I had something to aim at,” Videtich said.
With all of the various kicks out of bounds and onside kicks that the Arena game requires, AFL kickers need to be creative. For Videtich and Smith, they both were helped by their experiences on the pitch. Videtich played soccer from the time he was six years old until he donned a tassel at his high school graduation. Smith played Division II soccer at St. Andrews Presbyterian College and continued playing the sport in various leagues after college.
“In traditional football, you’re either kicking off or kicking through uprights and everything is kind of a repetitive motion,” Videtich said. “With the Arena Football League, because you have some of these different instances, it’s not traditional. It’s not something that you necessarily get the chance to practice all the time.”
Soccer players, of course, are used to kicking the ball at varying speeds in infinite directions. The freedom of the pitch works well on the gridiron when it comes to taking half-swings and wild swings at the ball, because after all, trickery is the name of the game in the AFL.
“The skills that I developed playing soccer helped me a lot especially in those situational kicks in the AFL,” Videtich said. “Being able to do that in a soccer background where you’re doing a bunch of different kicks all the time, whether it’s passes short or passes long, whether you’re shooting on goal or different things like that, it’s the ability to do with the ball what you want it to do. It’s something that you can develop far more in a soccer background than in a traditional football background.”
That ability is priceless in the AFL, where the uprights are tight, but the possibilities are endless.