Friday, March 11, 2011

Stop, Drop, & Kick: An Extra Dimension

On December 8th, 1863 in London, England, Blackheath FC withdrew from the Football Association, of which it was a founding member of just months prior, due to an argument in regards to the rules by which "football" was played. A disagreement on the concept of "hacking", or the kicking of an opponent's shins loomed largely over the FA. Blackheath was in favor of this allowance, while other clubs were not. An underlying factor at the time was the various codes of football and those clubs which played the "carrying" game, or what is now commonly known as rugby, versus what Americans refer to as "soccer". Being a club playing the carrying game, it behooved Blackheath FC to literally pick up its ball and take it elsewhere to play with like minded clubs. In 1871, this was realized at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London when the Rugby Football Union was formed.

It is fair to assume then that Francis Maule Campbell, a student at Blackheath Proprietary school who went on to play for Blackheath FC and represent them in the original FA meetings, could never have imagined the impact that this break with the game of football would have on history. Nor could he imagine that almost 150 years later, a game also called "football", a direct derivative of his beloved rugby union code, would be played on American soil and its officials would toss around numbers like 9 billion as if it was nothing. And in viewing a game of "gridiron" or "American" football, would Campbell recognize anything resembling rugby union, or for that matter, the code developed somewhat later, rugby league?

On one hand, the answer to that is a simple no. Forward passing is enough to make any Englishman worth his weight in John Smith's Extra Smooth cringe, not to mention the helmets and padding. Perhaps the "snap" still has enough resemblance to its predecessors, the formal "scrum" and the quicker "ruck". It is possible to trace the origins if you're willing to do the research, but to the latent eye, it is quite hard to say. And surely, then, if one could not see the relation between the rugby union code and American football, then any relation to arena football must be invisible, correct?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In the final match of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, England took on Australia, the host of the tournament at Telestra Stadium, currently known as Stadium Australia, in Sydney. It was here where English fly-half Jonathan Peter Wilkinson tempted fate, and won.

Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal with just 26 seconds remaining in extra time is one of the everlasting moments in not just rugby, but all of sports. To beat the Wallabies in Australia during the World Cup was, at that time, unfathomable. The last World Cup match loss for the Wallabies came 8 years prior, handed to them by England, on, astoundingly, a drop goal at the brink of full time.

A drop goal is scored by performing a drop kick, rather than a set kick from a tee or from the touch of the holder, propelling the ball through the uprights. This is a common site in rugby union and to some extent in rugby league, however, a actual drop kick is used to begin play or "kickoff" after a score (league prefers to use the drop kick in some other situations) . But it is no anomaly to see them used in the union code strategically to score points during play. Often times they are used with little or no time remaining, or when the leading team is looking to simply expand or maintain their lead.

To most Americans, however, a drop kick is an archaic novelty. The only time we see it is in an NFL Films program about your grandfather's St. Louis Cardinals or when Doug Flutie is attempting one in a career-validating maneuver, which at that point, a reference to Ray "Scooter" McLean of the Chicago Bears, who converted the last successful NFL drop kick attempt (1941) prior to Flutie, must be made. A drop kick is hardly ever utilized in the American game.

It is fundamentally important to consider the point value of a drop goal and its role in both sports. Scoring is similar except for one fundamental difference. In rugby union, a drop goal is worth 3 points as well, however, there is no option for a placekick, or set field goal, thus making the drop goal the sole option for kick based points during run of play. "Conversion kicks", or the term for a rugby "point after attempt" (PAT), placekicks are allowed and are typical. In American football, a drop kick is worth 1 point when employed for an extra point attempt and three points when used in place of the traditional placekicked field goal, meaning, the point value is the same whether drop kicked or a holder is used. It is clear to see, then, that the set field goal of American football essentially eliminates the need to "risk" taking a drop kick in the first place.

The placekick was common in the American game for some time, but took a real foothold (pun intended) in the 1930s, relegating the drop goal, and the drop kick, to novelty status. As mentioned before, American football derived from rugby, a loose, free-form and free-flowing game which does not allow for practical application of the "set-snap-hold-kick" placekick. But as football as we know it today evolved, the game became more structured and rigid, and full of pauses between plays that allowed teams to set up for a placekick. Given the game's current form and point scoring format, the drop kick is obsolete.

And it might remain obsolete on this side of the Atlantic if not for the Arena Football League restoring its validity. In the Arena league, a drop kick during the PAT is worth 2 points, one more than the standard placekick. On top of that, a drop kick instead of a placekick for a field goal, typically worth 3 points, is worth a whopping 4 points in the AFL. So then, it would seem, in a league that does not allow punting, that these quick strike sticks, that would look not unlike Jonny Wilkinson's game winner, would be commonplace.

A quick look at the stats as per shows that only one player in AFL history has nailed the vaunted 4-pointer. In 1994, Brian Mitchell booted six, yes six, 4-point drop goals for the Cleveland Thunderbolts to go along with 18 drop kicked extra points. In '95 he played shortly for the St. Louis Stampede, failing to register a 4-pointer, despite making 10 2-point conversions. The story remains unclear as to why the sudden drop off, but regardless, it seems almost unbelievable that Mitchell would be the only player to convert a 4-point drop kick in the existence of the league. A handful of players have converted a 2-point attempt, however, other than Mitchell, the highest total for a single season is 4, and none have been made since 2001.

It seems odd that there would be such a lack of attempts given the potential value they hold. Finding an answer or explanation for this lack of drop goals could be daunting although not impossible. In the United States, obviously, drop kicking is basically never committed at any level of football, meaning it is never taught. The number of people who can accurately kick a drop kick is limited, and those that can are found on an amateur rugby pitch. Perhaps it is that the high scoring style of game in the AFL makes touchdowns almost too alluring. Teams are more likely to throw in hopes of a touchdown, rather than make a conservative play for a field goal, something far more common in the NFL or at the collegiate level.

The indoor style of play focuses much less on the kick game than most professional levels of football, but what if drop goals were not limited to kicking specialists? Sure, this conjures up images of Kordell Stewart in his "Slash" days which did not prove fruitful at the NFL level. But it is entirely possible, with the much smaller, faster field and game play of the Arena League, that a player not unlike Stewart could potentially be very dangerous.

Albeit, such speculation is just that, speculation, but a quarterback that could throw for 6-points and kick for 4-points at any given point in the game could change the way the game is played entirely. The role of the quarterback and his attributes is decidedly American - a stoic leader passing his way down the field against all obstacles to reach the goal line. Perhaps we take a cue from the other side of the pond and drop kick our way to glory. Surely, Francis Maule Campbell would approve. At least something would be recognizable.


Turkey said...

This was a surprisingly thoughtful post for a blog so yellow

Pro said...

we try.