NFL field goals can be tough call
CLEVELAND—Browns kicker Phil Dawson stood in front of his locker and lectured like a calculus professor at Harvard.
Breaking down the various elements needed to make a field goal -- angle, speed, trajectory, and the probability of an oblong football sailing through tricky winds and between stationary uprights -- Dawson caught the attention of linebacker Scott Fujita, his well-read teammate who earned two degrees at Cal-Berkeley.
"John Nash, everyone," Fujita said with a laugh and comparing Dawson to the famed mathematician and subject of the film "A Beautiful Mind."
Well, Dawson's IQ isn't quite at genius level, and he'll never replicate Nash's work on game theory, but he does have vast knowledge on kicking field goals.
Lately, he's learned how difficult they can be to judge.
Because for all the technological advancements that have made NFL games safer and more enjoyable: from improved helmets to the computer-generated yellow line that allows TV viewers to see if it's a first down and instant-replay systems designed to ensure officials make calls correctly, ruling on field goals remains an inexact science.
In fact, there's no more science behind it at all than two sets of human eyes under the goalpost -- and they can be fooled.
"It's a rough spot for officials, to stand under the goalposts, look straight up and discern if any part of a ball is outside the uprights," Dawson said. "I know it's not easy."
And it's not the kicks that miss by a few feet, or even inches, that are difficult to assess. It's the ones that fly directly above the 30-foot-high uprights that are trickiest and a few recent ones have caused a small outcry -- mostly by kickers, the game's most exacting players -- for the league to adopt a better way to rule on field goals.
"There's a lot of confusion and it just seems like there's technology out there that would make it a lot easier," said Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, who recalled kicks at Green Bay's Lambeau Field being blown around so much that no one on the field could tell if they were good..
Ask any kicker and he'll suggest a remedy for the problem: Raise the uprights. Mount cameras on the crossbar. Implant a computer chip inside the ball. Shoot lasers above the uprights. Add another official designated for field goals.
Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith said he's tried to address the issue with the NFL office for years. Smith feels he has a solution -- or two.
"Why don't you do it like tennis?" Smith said. "Why don't you laser it? Or extend them? It's ridiculous they don't do that. Do it like tennis with the laser in there. Is it good or is it not? Check it and go. We'd do it with the replay machine. It would be easy. Let's just be fair. It's easy."
League spokesman Greg Aiello said the current system is sound, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be improved.
"We have one official under each upright with the perfect view for judging field goals and their calls on field goals have not been much of an issue historically," Aiello said. "But the Competition Committee always looks for ways to improve the game so we would not rule out anything."
It took Dawson several days to get over a recent judgment on one of his kicks.
With the Browns leading 14-10 in the fourth quarter on Nov. 20 against Jacksonville, Dawson's 38-yard field goal attempt was ruled wide right. Dawson, a 13-year veteran who has made 270 career field goals and seven beyond 50 yards this season, was so certain he made his kick turned to shake hands with holder Brad Maynard.
That's when Dawson saw the two officials standing at the back of the end zone signaling that his kick was wide right. Incredulous and angry, Dawson pointed, traced the direction of his kick and argued to no avail. Dawson, who has a history of bizarre kicks, was then informed his attempt could not be reviewed because it had sailed directly over the upright, adding more confusion.
"The rule states that if the ball is above the upright, it's good," Dawson said. "And that ball wasn't even close to being over the upright. I had a pretty good vantage point."
The rule Dawson is referring to states: "The entire ball must pass through the vertical plane of the goal, which is the area above the crossbar and between the uprights or, if above the uprights, between their outside edges."
Dawson's argument is that rule and its interpretation conflict.
"The rule states that if the ball is directly over the upright, it's good," he said. "Well, if you go set a ball directly over an upright, it's fatter than the upright is wide. So if the ref says he sees part of the ball over the upright, they are going to say it's no good. Either they need to change the rule or come up with some other way to take some of the subjectivity out of it because it's a pretty objective play."
Later that day, the Redskins lost to the Dallas Cowboys 27-24 in overtime on Dan Bailey's 39-yard field goal, a kick Washington coach Mike Shanahan wasn't certain went inside the upright.
"I'll be honest with you, I'm just disappointed they don't extend (the uprights) by another 10, 15 feet, so there is no question if a ball goes through,' Shanahan said. "I've been like that for years: Why should there even be a question mark?"
Cameras could help, but even they may not be foolproof because of angles and weather conditions.
San Francisco kicker David Akers recalled a kick he made for Philadelphia against the 49ers that was challenged.
"I kicked it from the left hash mark and it came across behind the pole," Akers said. "But it's on an angle, so the TV copy looked like (a miss). It's good by a couple feet, but because of the angle, the trajectory coming across the field, it looked closer by the way the camera was. TV doesn't really give you the proper perspective."
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent doesn't believe the league will make any changes unless there's a significant increase in the number of controversial kicks.
"If it happens over and over again, once every two weeks and comes out at the end of the season to eight or 10 times, maybe they'll do something about it," Nugent said. "If it keeps happening over and over, they'll make an adjustment."
Dawson seems to be a magnet for these field-goal follies.
Four years ago in Baltimore, Dawson kicked a 51-yarder on the final play of regulation that bounced off the left upright and caromed off the rear "gooseneck" attachment behind the crossbar. The attempt was originally ruled no good, but the officials reversed the call following a discussion even though the play was not technically reviewable.
The next year, a rule change was made to allow certain field goals to be reviewed by instant replay. It was dubbed the "Phil Dawson Rule."
Dawson feels fixing one of pro football's judging problems could be solved with an assist from baseball, which has increasingly embraced the use of technology to aid umpires, though not on ball-and-strike calls.
"They have the strike zone box," he said. "Why not just have a grid and it will show you exactly where the ball hit the grid? If it hits the grid, it's good. But at the end of the day, every penalty flag thrown is subjective to a degree and there is human error, that's the game we play and whether you can reduce that effect or eliminate it, I don't know how reasonable that is.
"Fortunately, these type kicks don't happen very often. You could imagine if it happened in a Super Bowl."
AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski in Eden Prairie, Minn.; Joseph White in Ashburn, Va.; Joe Kay in Cincinnati; and Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.