The “Greatest of All Time” debate is the most obnoxious in sports. Everyone has a side in the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James and Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning debates (MJ/Brady for me), and if we’re being honest, everyone is probably more right and more wrong than they realize. Everyone has their own personal biases, and ultimately, it’s apples and oranges. There’s also recency bias, where people will prioritize their own experiences over the history of the game, ignoring the crucial context of a bygone era.
Which is why it’s funny that I, someone who can’t stand the Baltimore Ravens as an organization, truly believe they currently employ someone that’s the best ever at his position. It’s not Lamar Jackson, one of two unanimous league MVP’s in league history. It’s not Marquise Brown, who has one of the best nicknames in NFL history (Hollywood is money). It’s not a player that lines up on offense or defense. It is the opera-singing, Royal Farms coffee drinking, master of the big boot himself (sorry Hulk Hogan), Justin Tucker.
Justin Tucker: The Best Kicker in NFL History
The Adam Vinatieri of It All
I can already hear the groaning. How can someone in his early 30’s be considered the greatest of all time? What about icons like Adam Vinatieri, Morton Andersen (with an E), and Gary Anderson (with an O)? Surely the Patriot and Colt icon, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer has a strong claim to the spot? After all, the man won four Super Bowls, played in six, and at least once every winter, Raider Nation has to take deep, labored breaths as they replay Vinatieri’s iconic conversion in the snow, and yes, I am speaking from personal experience, why do you ask?
For one, believe it or not, Adam Vinatieri is not as accurate as you may remember. The league’s most famous kicker is only 25th all-time (83.7) in field goal percentage (min. 100 attempts). Now, you do have to consider that while only 12 men have ever attempted 500 field goals, only two have attempted 700, and Vinatieri is one of them. And while the twilight of his career was cringe-inducing, you don’t judge a career by the twilight, but by the prime.
But even then, if you only count from his rookie season to the last season he posted a conversion rate of 90% or higher, it only bumps him up to 19th all-time (84.1%). But that happened mostly inside of 50 yards. On the longer kicks, the sure-fire Hall of Famer wasn’t a sure thing. He converted 62.5% from 50+, which is two percent under the league average in 2020, and he never sniffed 60 (somewhere in a dimly lit cabin, Sebastian Janikowski laughs).
Am I saying that the Patriots and Colts icon doesn’t deserve to be enshrined in Canton? Absolutely not. I’ve always said that a Hall of Famer is someone that is essential to NFL history. “Can you tell the story of the NFL without this person?” should always be the first question the committee asks, and you absolutely cannot tell the story of the NFL without Vinatieri’s clutch kicks. Beyond that, he’s the league’s all-time leading scorer, that’s impressive enough. He shouldn’t be a first ballot guy, but he absolutely belongs in Canton someday. But just because Emmitt Smith is the all-time leading rusher and had some great runs, that doesn’t mean anyone with a brain/other than Cowboy’s fans (same difference) considers him the GOAT.
But if I get a choice of any kicker in NFL history in his prime, am I taking Vinatieri? No. No, I’m taking Justin Tucker.
I mentioned before that Vinatieri, in his prime, converted 84% of his kicks. By the time he was Justin Tucker’s age (31), that stat was hovering around 80% as the Patriots were in the midst of Tom Brady’s [first] dynasty. Here in 2021, Justin Tucker converts 90.7% of his field goal attempts, which is the highest in NFL history. The only other kicker in NFL history over 90% is Kansas City’s Harrison Butker, who, let’s be honest, doesn’t have the world’s most challenging job, and has approximately half as many attempts.
That’s not a typo, after 321 kicks, there’s still only a 9.3% chance that Tucker will miss. He’s never missed from inside of 30 yards, and he only has 27 misses on 261 attempts inside of 50. And outside of 50? His numbers are still pretty strong. He’s converted 70% of kicks longer than 49 yards, including a game-winning 61 yarder against Detroit in only his second season. That means JT’s conversion rate from 50+ is about six percent higher than the rest of the league. Should Tucker convert three 50+ yarders this season, he’ll tie Vinatieri, a decade and a half sooner.
Tucker is a four-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team all-pro, both of which already surpass Vinatieri, and was the kicker on the 2010’s all-decade team during a time period where eight of the other 10 most accurate kickers of all time were active. That’s right, nine of the top 10 most accurate kickers of all time are active right now, and like Godzilla next to Mothra and Rodan, Tucker reigns supreme as the king of kings.
“Moving the Goalposts”
Why is it seemingly so much easier to convert field goals now? Any number of reasons. Firstly, offenses are better. The Bills Mafia can’t destroy a table the way I did pounding it for the devaluation and inflation of passing statistics over the last few years. Rule changes make moving the ball through the air the easiest it’s ever been. Secondly, athletes are just better. Call it genetics, call it advancements in science, call it state of the art gyms, athletes are better now than they ever have been in the past. Sure, that applies to people like Saquon Barkley and D.K. Metcalf, but it trickles down to kickers too. Finally, nearly half of the league has abandoned the titanic coliseums of old for sleek, environmentally controlled domes or indoor stadiums.
It is statistically proven that it is easier to convert a field goal indoors. The absence of wind makes the task significantly easier. When Vinatieri left windy New England for the RCA Dome (and then Lucas Oil) in Indianapolis, his field goal percentage went up four points, and that’s including the last year of his career where he couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn.
But ironically enough, this doesn’t help Tucker much. All four AFC North teams play outdoors, and the vast majority of indoor stadiums are in the NFC, and the Ravens haven’t visited Allegiant Stadium or SoFi Stadium yet, which account for half of the AFC’s indoor arenas.
And sure, here in 2021, Lamar Jackson has made the Ravens an offensive powerhouse, but for the first six years of his career, he didn’t have a top ten offense, and the Ravens only cracked the top 15 twice. Despite the dramatic disparity in offensive efficiency between Joe Flacco’s Ravens and Lamar Jackson’s, Justin Tucker has remained pretty consistent throughout the years.
If Tucker is the most consistent kicker in NFL history, and he’s reliable from long distance, what’s the argument against him? Sure, outside of that 61 yard game-winner, he doesn’t have the glitzy highlights that Vinatieri has, but by that same logic, David Tyree has more memorable Super Bowl plays than Marvin Harrison. I think it’s very telling that the most memorable play of Justin Tucker’s career to this point is actually a miss. Not because the miss was so devastating, but because it was so surprising that it was all anyone could talk about.