A northeasterly breeze blows across the football fieldat the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. To me the wind provides some glorious relief: It’s the middle of the day in the middle of July, and a heat wave has just descended on the region. But to Harrison Butker, who is standing with me at the 40-yard line, facing north, it’s a tactical advantage. “Bit of a tailwind,” he says, eyeing the goal posts as he bends to tee up a football.
Not that he needs it. Butker backs away, takes two steps to his left, pauses, and dashes toward the ball, his right foot making contact with a thwock that sings throughout the stadium. The kick drifts right, tails left, then soars high between the uprights. It’s a 50-yard field goal, but it looks to me like it could have been good from more than 60.
Butker is the starting placekicker for the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s met me here at a kicking camp in Whitewater to demonstrate his skills, which are considerable. One of the most powerful and consistent kickers in the NFL, Butker has made more than 95 percent of the extra points he’s attempted in the course of his career and 90 percent of his field goals, including several from 50 yards or more.
He’s made even more impressive field goals in practice. Dressed in full pads and facing down a defensive line, he’s sent footballs flying through the uprights from 67 yards away. That’s a good bit farther than the NFL’s current in-game record of 64 yards, which Matt Prater, then of the Denver Broncos, set in 2013 at the city’s Mile High Stadium.
That’s the interesting thing about the field goal: While the in-game record has barely budged in half a century (before Prater, it belonged to New Orleans Saints placekicker Tom Dempsey, who made a game-winning, 63-yard field goal against the Detroit Lions all the way back in 1970), kickers are capable of much greater distances. “In practice, if there’s wind going and a broken-in ball, you can see guys going back to 80, maybe even farther than that,” Butker says. Which is why players, coaches, and sports scientists all agree that it’s only a matter of time until someone breaks the record.
The question is: By how much?
Probably by quite a lot. “I would not be surprised if at some point in my day I saw somebody kick an upper 80s, maybe even 90-yard field goal,” says Chase Pfeifer. A biomechanist and biomedical engineer, Pfeifer was a placekicker as an undergraduate at Florida State University. He went on to perform 3D analyses of elite placekickers, including where and how fast their foot makes contact with the ball, and the flight dynamics of their kicks—originally for his PhD dissertation, and later for fun and profit.
He also built a field-goal-kicking robot named Herbie Junior, after the mascot of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pfeifer’s alma mater. At first, the kicking leg on Herbie Junior was a counter-weighted pendulum powered by a custom gear chain, a lawnmower engine, and an industrial shock absorber. Pfeifer later replaced the lawnmower engine with a winch, to give him more control. “Humans are unpredictable and inconsistent,” Pfeifer adds. “But a mechanical robot kicks the same way every time.”
By cross-referencing his player data with his robot data, Pfeifer was able to study how things like foot speed, foot placement, and coordination affect the quality of a given kick. According to Pfeifer’s observations, when an elite placekicker’s foot makes contact with the ball, it’s usually traveling between 42 and 49 miles per hour (that’s between 19 and 22 meters per second), and can deliver more than 3,000 newtons of force to the ball. To achieve maximum distance, a kicker needs to launch the ball at 43 degrees. And to do that, their foot needs to make contact a quarter of the way up the football, which, on a standard NFL ball, is about 2.5 inches off the ground.
Based on his data, Pfeifer says that a record-breaking 70-yard field goal kicked at sea level, with no wind, would require a foot speed of around 49 miles per hour delivered right to the ball’s sweet spot, while an 80-yarder would take a foot speed of about 56 mph. And while the latter is outside the range typical of elite kickers, it’s well within the realm of human ability: The foot speeds of elite soccer players have been clocked at more than 60 miles per hour (27 m/s), which, in theory, is good enough for a field goal from 90 yards.
But you might never see that during an NFL game. From a strategic standpoint, it’s difficult to conceive of a game-time scenario in which a coach would actually consider going for a field goal greater than 70 yards instead of, say, a Hail Mary. (Not that it hasn’t happened.) That’s because, even if a coach felt confident in a kicker’s range, the kicker would also have to have extraordinary accuracy.
The farther from the goal posts you get, the smaller your margin of error becomes. A 20-yard field goal kicked from the center of the field has to stay within a lateral window 17 1/2-degrees wide, but at 60 yards that window decreases to below six degrees. Back up all the way to 90 yards, and it shrinks to 3.9 degrees. “If you’re off by a hair, you’re going to miss,” Pfeifer says.
When the next record-breaking field goal does happen, it will be the result of an unprecedented combination of power, precision, and circumstance. The last one’s tough to speak to: No one can say when such an opportunity will present itself. But if it does for Butker, he might just be accurate enough to pull it off; one of his favorite parlor tricks is drilling the goal post with a ball he kicks from the corner of the end zone. And he certainly has the leg for it. The day after he shows me how effortless a 50-yard field goal can look, he launches a kickoff that flies 90 yards and lingers in the air for nearly four and a half seconds.
Kicks like that one catch even Butker off guard. “You’re almost surprised by how far the ball goes,” he says. “Everything’s just so lined up, that it almost feels like butter off your foot. It’s like, man, I don’t know what happened, but that ball just flew.”
This story first appeared on Wired.com.
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