Every good NFL team has a dependable leg
Since 2003, just under 19% of every NFL contest is decided by exactly three points. No, really. And that is not just a regular season stat, but includes every playoff game.
So please do not utter the words “kickers aren’t real people.”
The Browns have had their fill of undependable legs since Phil Dawson was unceremoniously show the door way back in 2012. That one occurrence has haunted this franchise ever since.
It’s like the Football Gods became angry that #4 wasn’t offered another contract after all those years as the club’s dependability factor. With Dawson, Cleveland didn’t have to worry about how far or what down or what the score was. They just trotted out jersey 4 and got points. Consistency was his game.
So GM Andrew Berry decided to do something about it and draft K Cade York out of LSU. In case you didn’t know, York was the Number 1 ranked kicker coming out of college this year.
“It was a big priority for us this off-season to make sure that we had added some competition and talent to the kicking game,” Berry said after the draft. “I think that is something that, coming out of last year, we thought we could make improvements, and we are certainly excited about some of the individuals who we have added to the roster.”
Oh, and one more thing: York was taken in the fourth round at pick #124; which essentially is majorly-high for taking a kicker. But did you know that kickers account for 30% of the scoring each year?
How many less than three-point games can you count that without a dependable kicker the game was ultimately lost? Last season Cleveland ranked last in the NFL on conversion rates on field goals at 72.7%.
Hey Browns fans – the kicking issue is officially solved.
York (6’-1”, 198 pounds) grew up in McKinney, Texas and went to high school at Prosper High, a 6A school in nearby Prosper, Texas. He and his sister were soccer standouts. Then York began kicking for the school’s football squad at age 16 which preceded the soccer season which runs from January to April in the State of Texas. The following year, he concentrated solely on the gridiron game.
Meanwhile, LSU’s special teams coordinator Greg McMahon knew that his All-Star kicker Cole Tracy was going to graduate very soon; and the last thing he wanted was to have this lull with scoring threes. LSU for so long did not hesitate to trot out their kicker and add to the scoreboard. McMahon was on the hunt.
He was in McKinney, Texas watching a high school game and spotted York who would go on to become one of the best kicking prospects in the nation. He had a long of 47-yards midway through his senior year as he went 11-11 in field goals.
An offer was made by McMahon along with other schools. His first offer was from Minnesota which head coach P.J. Fleck is well-known for his large emphasis on great special teams. Air Force was another which gave York an offer as was Arkansas.
York was selected to play in the annual high school national all-star game the Under Armour All-America Game to which he set an all-time game record by nailing a 59-yard field goal.
What happens when you hit the longest field goal in Under Armour All-America Game history?
— All-America Game (@UANextFootball) January 3, 2019
In the end, York committed to the LSU Tigers.
York started as a rookie but not without ripples. Although 21-27 field goal attempts for a 77.8 conversion ratio, the issue was his inability to hit extra points at important junctures of certain games when a single point mattered. Although he converted 89 PATs, he missed four.
He came under the microscope in a college setting where scrutiny can be harsh and friends difficult to find when things go south with games on the line.
York settled down midway through his freshman year and finished strong. In the November 30, 2019 game against Texas A&M, a 50-7 blowout victory in front of 102,218 rabid fans, York hit a 51- yard field goal in the second quarter. With just over seven minutes left in Quarter #3, he made a 50-yarder just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke.
York is the first LSU kicker to make two field goals of 50-yards or longer in a game.
For his efforts, he was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and was also selected Second Team All-SEC as he was responsible for 152 points scored. That 2020 season, LSU won the National Championship.
During the off-season York worked on his form, his leg switch, his swirl and his swing – which are all kicker terms.
York was known as a guy who was never satisfied with what he had done and wanted to work harder in order to become better even if that meant being hard on himself if he feels he’s not achieving his goals or kicking standards.
The extra work paid off in his sophomore campaign. York improved his field goal ratio to 85.7% completion when he made 18 out of 21 kicks. But more importantly, he was a perfect 36-36 on extra points.
York had decided that fans and his classmates could second guess why a long field goal wasn’t converted, but he hated the harsh criticism of what seemed like a simple conversion for a single point and yet was missed. His focus was to never miss an extra point again.
Against 8-1-0 Florida in early December, he beat them on a 57-yard completion with 27 seconds remaining. The kick itself was amazing, but York nailed it in a thick fog and in the hostile confines of “The Swamp” located on the campus there in Gainesville, Florida.
That season he contributed 90 points for the Tigers and was named a semi-finalist for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker. He concluded that year First Team All-SEC plus Second Team All-American.
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 30, 2020
Last year York finished with 15 field goal conversions against 18 attempts for an 83.3 conversion ratio and again was perfect on PATs going 39 for 39 plus scored 84 points. He did not qualify for the Groza Award since the minimum number of field goal attempts is 20.
“The biggest difference in this year and last year is I’m a lot more confident in myself,” York said about his success. “Basically every kick they throw me out for I know I can make it.”
What seems odd is that the longer the kick, the cooler York seems to be.
Onto the NFL draft
If you play fantasy football with a standard 12-round draft, most likely you have waited until the 11th or final round to grab your kicker. Which in itself is crazy. Kickers can score double-digit numbers each and every game. So why not grab one a few rounds earlier and select one that is on an awesome offense that will have numerous field goal opportunities to score points?
Now translate that to a real pro football squad. Why not get a kicker who will score a lot of points for your offense in a full season? Why wait until the sixth or seventh round to address that position and then accept that the guy you took instead might not be dependable. Besides, a lot of sixth and seventh round guys end up being cut and then land on the practice squad.
A sixth round defensive tackle isn’t going to get you double-digit points each game and will need quite a bit of development. Doesn’t it make sense to grab the best kicker available and make sure you get him as a Day 1 starter?
Apparently, that was Berry’s rationale. The Browns have for so long been barren at the kicker position and have had a revolving door of bodies float thru the turnstiles over the years.
And everyone knew that Cade York was the best kicker prospect in this year’s draft and is about as clutch as they come. Now, Cleveland has him.
With the evaluation of a kicker, you must consider his completion percentage. However, a franchise will also want to consider if a kicker can come up clutch when needed. In the past three seasons, York is one of just three kickers who have nailed a kick of 50-plus yards in the final two minutes of a game. Clutch enough?
Basically, York has a history of making kicks under pressure.
“It’s kind of a combination of talent with the mental makeup,” Browns Director of Player Personnel Dan Saganey said. “This is a guy who kicked in a lot of big games for LSU at a high-powered program where every game is a huge game down there every week, and he made a lot of kicks. When you combine that with the talent, that is something that we were really excited to get here.”
York also impresses via his preparation plus leg strength. He has the belief that kickers and punters must have the ability to key and diagnose any issues or peculiarities that may arise, and so he studies every kick he makes plus every one he misses.
This will come into play in a game when a drive stalls inside the opponent’s 40-yard line facing a fourth down. While analytics may state to go for it, with a strong-legged weapon at your disposal this may change the game plan and accept three points instead of failure to make the first down and giving the other team great field position.
So in Round 4 with the selections of a cornerback, defensive end, wide receiver and a defensive tackle already on the books, Berry selected York at #124 as the first specialist chosen in this year’s draft.
Shortly after the pick, players such as TE Jake Ferguson, WR Romeo Doubs and DT Neil Farrell, Jr. were taken – all positions of need for the Browns. But one thing York does: he solidifies a position of need with a bit of Phil Dawson consistency added to the pot in pressure situations.
One only has to look at what Cincinnati did last year after drafting Florida’s Evan McPherson and his dependability to win this argument. He had quite the rookie campaign as he converted 46 of 48 PATs and made 28 of 33 field goals attempts, including nine from 50+ yards.
And if you look deeper into the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers have Chris Boswell whereas the Baltimore Ravens possess the league’s best kicker in Justin Tucker. Along with McPherson, their success at the position became an inspiration to finally solve Cleveland’s kicker woes.
Southern kid in Cleveland?
The Browns’ roster is full of southern born-and-raised players that have found a new home in Northeastern Ohio.
York is just one more who eat cheese grits, boiled peanuts, fried okra, Conecuh sausage, boiled crawfish and drink sweet tea.
But a kicker in Cleveland is different. Waaaaay different.
The reason? Lake Erie.
And not for the reason of the variety of fresh fish that is harvested from the lake such as brown trout, yellow perch, northern pike, steelhead or smallmouth bass – but the winds. Those treacherous winds.
There are days that the northern winds descend off the lake and create havoc during a football game. There are conditions such as barometric pressure that affect these conditions, but mainly it is because the lake is the shallowest of the Great Lakes which enable the winds to simply whip off the surface.
This will – and does – increase the wind chill factor on any given day. It also can increase the wind speed which come off the lake and swirl with strong winds and low pressure especially from the southwest to northeast.
The end result is some impossible conditions for kickers to figure out.
When Phil Dawson was in Cleveland, he had installed a small flag that indicates the wind at FirstEnergy Stadium. This is located in a gap in the southwest corner of the end zone to give an indication of what the wind was doing.
Dawson explained why he had this idea in an interview on DawgsByNature back in November of 2020:
“Early in my time in Cleveland, I noticed that days when the wind was out of the South West, it was a brutal day to kick. I needed some sort of gauge of how hard the wind was entering the South West tunnel of the stadium. I asked Chris Powell, our grounds crew leader, if he could get some sort of flag up. The next home game, there it was. I believe it is still there to this day, but with the stadium renovations, I don’t think that South West tunnel is as big as it used to be.”
Next, Dawson explained how the flag told the current wind conditions for a kicker to use:
“Ken Rundle, a former Secret Service sniper taught me that the angle a flag is blowing, if you divide by four, that is the approximate wind speed. I took his word for it.”
And Dawson was a Texas guy as well having to learn the weather in Cleveland. Just as York will have to do.
Since being drafted by the Browns, York was asked about the wind conditions at his new home:
“I’ve heard the stories about the wind and stuff like that, but really you just have to be able to strike the ball well, learn about the wind and go in there and figure it out. I’m excited to get down there and start getting to work.”
Which to Browns fans who have lived in the area will attest, those words are easier said than done.
York will find out. Those winds are the most problematic for a kicker during the colder months. The worst situation is that these winds are able to change direction numerous times during a home game and are unpredictable.
The two cures for this is Dawson’s flag with the sniper’s mathematical equation, plus a very strong leg that can punch the ball through.
Which, luckily, York has both.