The Tennessee Titans have seemingly been cursed at the kicker position for most of the last two seasons. After five straight years of converting over 83% of his field goal attempts, veteran kicker Ryan Succop missed the start of the 2019 season as he recovered from offseason knee surgery. That led to the team bringing in Cairo Santos, who completely imploded in a Week 5 loss to the Bills, missing all four of his field goal attempts. After a brief cameo by Cody Parkey, Succop returned and promptly missed five of his six field goal tries. Finally, Greg Joseph finished out a miserable season that saw the Titans go 8 of 18 (44.4%) combined on field goals.
Last offseason Jon Robinson decided to address the issue by bringing in the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, Stephen Gostkowski before the start of the season. However, the former Patriot got off to a horrible start in Tennessee as well, connecting on 10 of his first 16 tries and missing two extra points. Things settled down around the middle of the season and Gostkowski ultimately hit eight of his last nine field goals.
The icing on top for Titans fans was watching Cairo Santos and Ryan Succop, two kickers who had combined to go 5 of 14 in Tennessee a year before, suddenly rebound. Santos made 30 of his 32 field goal attempts (93.8%) in Chicago, earning a new three-year, $9-million deal from the Bears. Succop hit 28 of 31 (90.3%) during the regular season and was a perfect nine-for-nine in the playoffs helping the Buccaneers win a Super Bowl.
So was this all just a cruel twist of fate for the Titans, who had enjoyed relatively steady kicking performances for half a decade before the 2019 debacle? Or was it simply a result of injuries disrupting things for two of the more reliable kickers of the last 15 years in Succop and Gostkowski?
Pat McAfee offered up a third explanation on his show today in the wake of the Titans signing All-Pro long snapper Morgan Cox in free agency.
McAfee doesn’t call out Brinkley by name, but he discusses watching film on the Titans and seeing punter Brett Kern having to “move a lot” to adjust for bad snaps and describes how that can be disruptive to a process that relies so much on timing. The former Colts punter also added that “there is no coincidence that Gostkowski goes down there for one year and then immediately following that year [the Titans] are like ‘we need another snapper'”.
Gostkowski is known to be meticulous about the timing and rhythm of the snap-hold-kick sequence and it’s importance to the overall success of that unit putting a ball through the uprights. Here is a quote from 2014 where he talks about that process.
There’s a lot. It’s a big trust thing. If you don’t think about where the hold is going to be, if you miss the ball by inches or if it leans a little bit forward or back or left or right or the laces are pointed toward the right or the left and the way the ball is, the laces and the weight of the ball in the wind, there’s so much stuff that goes into it. A lot of that has to do with how good the snapper is; the snapper giving the holder laces out. There are so many little things that go into it. It’s almost like a pitcher prefers one catcher over the other. To some, it’s like the guy is just catching the ball but he’s not really – he knows what the guy likes, he knows how to frame the pitches, he knows what pitches he likes to call. Ryan knows when it’s a certain wind to lean it a little more or to open up his body a little more. Maybe if the wind is blowing right to left to put the laces a little bit more to the right so it will hold longer. With playing outside and in adverse conditions, there’s a lot more adjusting that goes into it. You can miss a kick on a good hold and you can still make kicks with bad holds but the more the operation is perfect, the percentages go up and up. It’s 1.3 seconds from when the ball is moved from the center is when you want to try to get the kick off. By the time my first foot hits, you want to see the ball. If it’s late or something like that, it can just throw your timing off. Getting a rapport with them and getting in rhythm and timing, it’s very important. He’s done a great job.https://www.patriots.com/news/stephen-gostkowski-press-conference-transcript-195191
With that in mind, I went to look at the splits between Gostkowski’s results with Beau Brinkley, the Titans long time long snapper, and with Matt Overton, the veteran snapper who replaced Brinkley midway through the season after a sequence of bad snaps that led to — among other bad results — an injury to Brett Kern. Here is what I found:
Gostkowski w/Brinkley: 10 of 16 (62.5%) on field goals, 20 of 22 (90.9%) on extra points
Gostkowski w/Overton: 8 of 9 (88.9%) on field goals, 26 of 26 (100%) on extra points
That seems like a pretty dramatic shift to me and when you layer McAfee’s comments over those results, you can certainly come to the conclusion that, perhaps, Brinkley was part of — if not most of — the problem. The Titans going out and getting arguably the best long snapper in the NFL in Morgan Cox from the Ravens would seem to suggest that they believe that position is pretty important to the success of whoever is going to be kicking field goals this year.