PUT KICKERS IN THEIR PLACE — OUT OF NFL

I have been thinking a lot lately about NFL kickers. And I think they’ve got to go.

Take the scene in the Monday night showdown between Jacksonville and Pittsburgh. It was a terrific, seesaw game. The Steelers trailed by two in the final minute. Quarterback Kordell Stewart led a desperate drive downfield. Yancey Thigpen leapt for his passes. Jerome Bettis rumbled out yardage. The offensive linemen hurled themselves into their blocks.

And finally, with seconds left on the clock, most of these sweaty warriors left the field and watched helplessly as Norm Johnson, who hadn’t attempted a field goal all season, went to kick the winning points …

And it was blocked.

Game over.

On the sidelines, Bettis looked down. Thigpen shook his head. Stewart looked to the sky, then yanked on a cap. What could they do?

It is a scene that repeats itself far too often. And why? What other sport has its best players leave the field for the most important play?

Can you imagine Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen taking seats for the final 10 seconds, hoping a reserve makes a three-pointer to win it?

Can you imagine the Red Wings’ star players — Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan
— skating off the ice in overtime, and allowing some kid to take a 60-foot slap shot to determine their fate?

Kickers don’t play most of the game. They rarely soil their uniforms. They rarely break a sweat — unless it’s from nerves.

Yet victory or defeat often rests on their performance. If they make it, they are slapped on the back for not cracking under pressure. If they miss, they are ostracized like soldiers who let down their comrades.

Maybe it’s time to remove them from the equation altogether.

Fourth-down imperative: Go for it!

Now, I mean no offense here to the fine men who kick, such as Jason Hanson of the Lions. It’s not their fault. The job exists right now, and they are filling it. They work hard, most of them are far more athletic than the average Joe, and they do have a special skill.

But what if the game didn’t require it? What if fourth down meant you have to go for it?

For one thing, it would eliminate the math from football. No more adding 17 yards to everything. How annoying is that?

“He’s at the 39, so that would make it …uh …46 …no, 56 …yeah …a 56-yard kick which he would kick from what …the 64-yard line …no wait, subtract six from 50, going backwards, it’s …uh …wait …oh, never mind. He just missed.”

Eliminating the kick would keep the star players — the players people pay to see — on the field for crucial plays. We all know the drama when a team actually goes for it on fourth down. What if that were a regular occurrence? Why shouldn’t it be?

As for scoring? Well, what if the only scoring were touchdowns and two-point conversions? (That’s right. We eliminate the extra point. I’m sorry, kickers, but is there anything dumber than this cherry-on-the-sundae play? A team marches 98 yards, surges into the end zone, bruised and battered, and then this neatly starched kicker puts a little exclamation point on the whole thing. Why? Let’s face it. If the extra point didn’t already exist, anyone suggesting it would be laughed out of the locker room.)

Besides, while most football plays are run from confidence, kicking is often swathed in fear. Everybody prays the kicker doesn’t choke. They pray the snap isn’t high. They pray the wind doesn’t take it.

I am all for prayer. But if most kicks begin with “Please, God, don’t let us blow it . . .,” well, that’s not the positive thinking football coaches are always talking about.

Some feel like kicking themselves

In the Jets-Raiders game Sunday, the Raiders outrushed and outpassed New York
— but they missed three field goals, botched an extra point, and had another kick blocked and returned for a touchdown. They lost.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles missed a golden chance to beat the Cowboys when they botched the hold on a last-minute field goal. They lost.

Around here they still remember 1983, the playoffs, when the Lions’ Eddie Murray hooked a kick in the final seconds against San Francisco and lost the game, 24-23.

This is nothing but useless frustration — and the NFL does nothing about it. Why? Eliminating the kicker would, at the very least, create a new job. It also would ensure that virtually everyone in the NFL spoke English.

A friend of mine, Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post, argues that without the field goal, we wouldn’t have had two of the most dramatic finishes in Super Bowl history: The Super Bowl won by Baltimore’s Jim O’Brien, and the Super Bowl lost when Buffalo’s Scott Norwood went wide left. “Everybody remembers those finishes,” Wilbon says.

Yeah. No matter how much Norwood tries to forget it.

But without those kicks, there would have been drama of a different kind. Maybe two-point play drama. Maybe fourth-down drama.

What there wouldn’t be is a sideline full of star players staring hopefully at a guy who doesn’t throw, block, run or tackle — but who now determines their fate.

Call me radical. Call me insane. But the time has come. We’re watching too many games like Monday’s. So with apologies to all the hardworking kickers out there, it’s time to give them the boot.

Next we go after the designated hitter.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 p.m. Friday at B. Dalton’s in Westland Mall. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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