Sports

66!

Justin Tucker’s record-setting, game-winning field goal was one of the greatest plays in NFL history.

Justin Tucker exults while holding a football.
Justin Tucker celebrates his record-setting, game-winning field goal for the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

After the Baltimore Ravens beat the Detroit Lions 19–17 on Sunday, the studio crew on CBS Sports’ The NFL Today—ex-players Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, and Nate Burleson, and ex–NFL head coach Bill Cowher—quizzed ex–NFL referee Gene Steratore about the game’s penultimate play. Did the play clock expire before Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson threw the ball out of bounds? Should Baltimore have been assessed a 5-yard penalty for delay of game? Were the Lions jobbed?

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The answers: Sure looked like it. Probably. I guess so. And also, who the hell cares, because the ultimate play was the one worth discussing: Justin Tucker’s 66-yard field goal attempt plopping down on the crossbar, leaping about 10 feet skyward, and descending on the right side of history—the longest field goal ever in the NFL, breaking Matt Prater’s 2013 kick for the Denver Broncos by 2 full yards.

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As a former faux NFL kicker myself, I root every week for a record-breaking attempt. Most NFL kickers are capable of booting a football 70 yards in practice. In the normal run of play, however, failure from that far would give the opposing team excellent field position. Even in lower-risk situations at the end of a half, a miss can be disastrous. About 90 minutes before Tucker’s record kick, Prater himself, now with the Arizona Cardinals, was given the opportunity to break his own record, from 68 yards. The kick fell a couple yards short, and Jamal Agnew of the Jaguars ran it back a record-tying 109 yards for a touchdown.

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In technical and situational terms, the decision by Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was defensible. The odds of Prater making the kick were not zero (he has the leg, the game was being played in warm weather) and the odds of a touchdown on the return were astronomically low (of more than 26,000 attempted field goals in the NFL since 1994, Agnew’s was just the sixth “kick six”). Plus, it created the circumstances for the rare play that was suspenseful on both sides of the ball: Will he break the record? What will happen if he doesn’t? Bonus point: The kick and what followed allowed the incomparable Gus Johnson to lose his mind making the call, as Gus Johnson often does. NFL decision-making isn’t always fun. This was fun. God bless Kliff Kingsbury.

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Now, back to the man of the hour/day/week/year/century. Justin Tucker’s kick in Detroit was arguably—at least I will argue—one of the coolest NFL plays ever. For starters, it shared historical parallels with the league’s first 60-plus-yard field goal, Tom Dempsey’s 63-yarder in 1970. (Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot, died last year of complications of COVID-19.) Both field goals resulted in 19–17 victories, and the hapless Lions were on the wrong end each time. Weird!

Dempsey’s mark was tied three times—by Jason Elam of Denver in 1998, Sebastian Janikowski of Oakland in 2011, and David Akers of Philadelphia in 2012—before Prater broke it. Tucker’s kick marked the first time the record has increased by more than a single yard since Dempsey broke the previous record, set by Bert Rechichar of the Baltimore Colts in 1953, by 7 yards. (Before well-groomed fields, “soccer-style” technique, and specialty training, kickers kind of sucked.)

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Before Sunday, Tucker’s career long in an NFL game was 61 yards. But the Ravens kicker never saw that distance as anything close to his limit. “As soon as I tell anyone I can hit from 74, 75, 80, I’m not saying it to blow smoke; I’m saying it because I can do it,” he told the Ringer’s Kevin Clark in 2017. “I’ve hit from 79 in practice, my best guess is I can hit an 84-yarder in Denver.”

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Tucker said after Sunday’s game that his leg wasn’t totally tuned up in pregame warmups—that his kicks, atypically, were falling short from 65 yards, toward both ends of Detroit’s enclosed Ford Field. “For some reason, I couldn’t get the ball to just go,” he said. “Thankfully, we found an extra yard and a half that I didn’t have three hours before. I’m grateful for that.”

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Tucker’s boot wasn’t just long. It was also incredibly clutch. Like Dempsey’s, it lifted his team from defeat to victory; Prater’s 64-yarder, which I wrote about in Slate, and the other 63-yarders all came at the unclimactic ends of first halves. They were each spectacular, but for game-in-the-balance pressure, not much.

Plus, Tucker’s kick was aesthetically unforgettable. To get to the goal posts—66 yards is very far away—longer kicks need more line drive than loft; the holder usually tips the ball farther forward than normal, resulting in a lower trajectory. Tucker’s kick, though, had plenty of arc, so it plopped onto the crossbar and ricocheted straight up. It was reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater for the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA playoffs, which, like Tucker’s kick, soared high, bounced high, and landed in the right place. There’s nothing like a doink—or a Double Doink. But a doink to win a game and set an all-time record? Amazing.

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No one deserves the record more than Tucker. Not only is he the most accurate kicker in NFL history, converting 90.6 percent of his field goal attempts—298 out of 329—he is as clutch as anyone in any sport, going 16-for-16 in the final minute of regulation, according to ESPN. When the Pro Football Hall of Fame finally lets in more kickers—there are just two in there now, Jan Stenerud, who was inducted in 1991, and Morten Andersen, in 2017—Tucker is sure to get a gold jacket. (Adam Vinatieri will no doubt get in, too.)

Also, he sings opera. And has had babies, puppies, and a pig named in his honor. And was willing to dress up like this for a sponsor. And is by all accounts a good guy.

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After the game, Ravens lineman Calais Campbell tweeted, “I am humbled to be able to block for the greatest kicker of all time! Justin Tucker #Legend #GOAT #Honored.”

So if you’re complaining about a delay-of-game penalty that would have negated a crazy and historic moment by a #Legend #GOAT, you’re thinking about the NFL all wrong. Distance, doink, dogpile—Justin Tucker’s 66-yarder had it all.

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