After an offseason where the Falcons had a kicking controversy for the first time in what seems like a decade, Atlanta eventually brought back franchise icon Matt Bryant. But long before Bryant started his exceptional run, the Falcons had another legendary kicker: Morten Andersen. Andersen had two stints in Atlanta, and is of course best known for his heroic kick in the 1998 NFC Championship that defeated the Vikings and sent the Falcons to their first ever Super Bowl.
I had the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with Andersen just before the 2019 season. I’ll be splitting the interview into three parts, as it was quite long. Here’s Part 2, where Andersen discusses the current state of kicking in the NFL, his opinions on the recent rule changes and thoughts on possible new rules, and some of his favorite stories from his time with the Falcons.
If you missed the first part of the interview, you can find it here: Part 1
Morten was speaking on behalf of US-bookies.
Kevin Knight, The Falcoholic: I’m sure you’ve followed the NFL’s recent rule changes. In particular, making the PAT a more difficult kick--equivalent to a short field goal. It seems like kickers are now more valuable than ever. What are your thoughts on the current state of kicking in the NFL, and are there any rule changes that you would like to see the NFL incorporate?
Morten Andersen: The level of kicking is high right now. If you’re not 80% (successful field goal percentage), you’re not average. That has changed significantly from when I played, because according to my career stats I had around 80%. By current standards, I’m average so...(laughs). So that gives you an idea of how the game has changed, how the percentages have moved up. I think the reason is that guys are kicking at an earlier age, especially US-born kickers. It’s not as prevalent anymore to have foreign kickers, which in the past that used to be almost, you know, a given. If you had a kicker on your team, very few of them were US-born. Now you have really good coaching for these kids--young kids, even around 10 years of age are kicking, and kicking at a pretty high level. So I think that’s one of the reasons that kicking has gotten really good.
Then, the methods of training have improved. Also, the advent of the long snapper. You know it used to be that the starting center would have to put on a different hat when it was fourth down and snap for punts and field goals. Now you have a designated long snapper on basically every roster, and all he does is snap on specialist plays. That has also increased the percentage, because when you have a snapper and a holder who are consistent--and it’s not just a backup center and quarterback--but you can actually have the punter and a designated long snapper, you’re gonna get great snaps and good holds on every kick. That’s going to increase the probability of you being successful as a kicker.
That’s how I sort of see the main reasons for the increase in performance levels among kickers. As far as rule changes, I can tell you what I don’t like--and I know why they changed it--but I don’t like the onside kick rule now. I thought that used to be such an exciting play, where you could overload, and I was one of the first guys that did that “high bounce” onside kick. We used to be very successful, as you might remember with the Falcons, of hitting that kick in both deliberate and surprise situations. We would recover more than 50% of those, and that’s a non-play now. You have to go 5-5 now, you can’t overload, you can’t have a running start and all these things. It’s taken away from the excitement of the onside kick, unfortunately. To me, not only as a deliberate, but as a surprise element in the game. For the fan experience, a surprise onside kick is a really fun play. That’s an unexpected play. So I don’t like that rule.
I’m fine with the other rule changes. Of course, the rule was changed when I played where if you missed a field goal, it didn’t come out to the 20-yard line. It goes to the original spot of the field goal attempt. So that penalized us. Then they moved the ball back to the 30-yard line on kickoffs and changed the tee from a 2-inch tee to a 1-inch tee--that penalized us. So there were lots of rules that were meant to sort of level the playing field for kickers, because the kickers were getting a lot better.
I think an interesting rule now would be to give a team 4 points for kicking a 60+ yard field goal. That might give teams a little more impetus to try those longer kicks. Because the 50-yarders now are the new 40-yarders--you have so many 50+ yard kicks. So let’s stretch the field a little more and see if we can create points. I think a 60+ yard field goal would be fun.
K: Yeah, that would be interesting for sure. I agree with you on the onside kicks--those are some of the most exciting plays in football. Even when you know they’re coming, and teams are trying to make a miraculous comeback, some of the best games and best stories in the NFL have come down to onside kicks and I think they’re a lot of fun. I understand the safety aspect of it, but it is a fun play that we’re not seeing very much of any more.
M: Yes, and not only that, but the kickoff has basically become a non-play. It’s really--that used to be a very exciting play too, and now it’s mostly touchbacks since the ball comes out to the 25. I know they did the math and found that there were a lot of collisions--and there certainly are violent collisions on kickoffs--but yeah, I don’t know.
K: Yeah, it’s a different game now. It is changing. Hopefully it makes it safer, that’s all we can say.
M: Right, exactly.
K: Let’s move to some Falcons questions, because I know everyone would be very upset if I didn’t ask any questions about the Falcons. You were with the team for two stints, from 1995-2000, and then again towards the end of your career from 2006-2007. From your time with Atlanta, are there any particular teammates or coaches you’d like to talk about, or any interesting or fun stories that you’d like to share?
M: You know, starting with June Jones in 1995--who took a chance on me out of New Orleans, when the Saints basically thought I was a declining player--and coming to the Falcons and having a really good run with the team. June Jones was great. I remember on the sideline in a preseason game, I hit a couple of 50-yarders. I think it was against the Miami Dolphins. Frank Gansz was the special teams coach. I hit like a really long one, and it was preseason so they were really trying to see what my range was--which back then was significant. So I hit my second 50+ yarder, and I remember June coming over and saying “Man, we should’ve paid you more money.” I remember telling him: “Hey, it’s never too late!”
So that was some of the action of the sideline, and he just laughed. We got a chuckle out of it. I always tried to keep it light.
With Dan Reeves, who came in after June, he was different but really was such a great players coach as well. We had a lot of fun. Dan gave me a nickname: “The Matador”. It happened on a kickoff when I was basically left to make a tackle on a guy, and I pretty much “ole’d” the guy and showed him the endzone. The guy went for a touchdown. So in the meeting on Monday, Dan shows the play of course. Lots of expletives. Basically he called me out, said “What are you doing?”
So I replied: “You don’t pay me to do that.”
He immediately flicked the lights on, and said “see me in my office after this meeting, and your name is now The Matador.”
Everybody in the room started chanting “ole!”, the whole team. (Laughs)
So, I did go to his office. He said: “You can’t say that in front of the team. I know I don’t pay you to make tackles, but I had to do that in front of the whole team. I can’t treat you differently than anyone else.”
I said: “I know coach. You and I both know you pay me to put it through the uprights, not lay the wood on guys that are twice as big as me. I’m not worth a lot to you if I’m on the sideline in a cast.”
He goes, “well, you got a good point there.”
And if you knew my shoulderpads--they were Kenny Stabler’s old shoulderpads, they were tiny. You’d break your collarbone trying to make a tackle.
K: Yeah, you’d be more like a speedbump.
M: Yeah! Then, Jim Mora, Jr. I’d say a pretty funny story with Jim was when I was unemployed as a kicker for 20 months, back in 2005. I was kicking in a public park, not knowing if I would get a chance. Well I did get a chance in 2006, when I was 46 years old. I happened to be at Jim Mora Jr.’s Count on Me Foundation charity golf tournament. I want to say it was in August, during the preseason in 2006. In the first hole, I had about a 10-foot putt. So Jim Mora, Jr. was sitting in a golf cart watching me, and he’s like: “Oh, I’ve seen you putt.”
I go: “Oh yeah? Well when I make this putt, you gotta promise me that you’re going to give me a tryout this year when your kicker isn’t getting it done. I’m the first on your call list.”
He says: “Yeah, I’ve seen you putt. That’s no problem.”
So, I drain the putt, and I winked at him and said: “Don’t forget.”
He laughed and said, “I won’t.”
Three games later, Michael Koenen was struggling against the Bucs. Missed a bunch of kicks inside 40 yards. He was doing both punting and kicking, and it was just too much. That’s when they called me. I came in, and won the tryout. Became the Falcons kicker, and then became the all-time leading scorer in December of that year.
That’s my Jim Mora story. But that’s how it went down: with a 10-foot putt.
K: Haha, that’s awesome. Great story.
Thanks for reading Part 2 of my interview with Morten Andersen. Check back next week for Part 3, where Morten talks about what it was like to kick a game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship, and gives his advice to the young kickers entering today’s NFL.