‘Ain’t no way he’s making this kick’: An oral history of Justin Tucker’s 66-yard record field goal

‘Ain’t no way he’s making this kick’: An oral history of Justin Tucker’s 66-yard record field goal

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, knew he wasn’t going to make this one. With the Baltimore Ravens trailing 17-16 at Detroit’s Ford Field on Sept. 26, 2021, Tucker was lining up for an NFL-record 66-yard field goal attempt when a thought popped into his head.

“Dude, there’s no way you’re going to get this there unless you just find a little bit of extra momentum into the ball,” Tucker thought to himself.

Tucker remembered a technique he had experimented with over the previous couple of years, one that was inspired by watching outfielders putting more into their throws to home plate. So he took a couple of steps back from where he normally starts in preparation for a self-described crow hop.

The power generated in that kick — Ravens special teams coach Randy Brown said it sounded like a “boom” from the sideline — lifted the Ravens to a 19-17 victory. On Sunday, Baltimore hosts Detroit (1 p.m. ET, Fox) for the first time since Tucker booted himself into the NFL record book.

“As technical and as detail-oriented as we have to be as specialists in order to have success, you just got to go based off feel sometimes, too,” Tucker said. “You got to just let yourself be an athlete.”

Tucker’s 22 game-winning or go-ahead field goals in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime are eight more than any current player.

Arizona Cardinals kicker Matt Prater, whose 64-yard field goal stood as the NFL record for eight years before Tucker broke it, compared Tucker’s crow hop to an approach you would make for a kickoff, not a field goal.

“I think that’s really hard to do,” Prater said. “It’s an impressive kick to hit that. I’ve never tried it. I don’t know if I could even do it.”

Tucker emphasizes the team aspect of the record. He said he wouldn’t have had a shot at making that kick if the snap, hold and protection weren’t perfect. As a result, all 11 players on Baltimore’s field-goal team received a framed picture of the history-making moment.

“It’s one of the greatest plays in the history of the National Football League,” Brown said.

Here is an inside look at Tucker’s 66-yard kick by those who experienced it, and why it was more unlikely than many realized.

‘He’s just not feeling it today’

No one would have predicted Tucker’s history-making day by watching him a few hours before the start of the game.

Tucker: I had a terrible pregame warmup. I just could not get the ball to go. I just felt physically not there.

Brown: His pregame was erratic, to say the least. When we kick out on grass so much [in Baltimore], it’s just a different surface [Ford Field has artificial turf]. And we don’t play in Detroit very often. So when you’re trying to get yourself accommodated to the surroundings, it’s just different. He really wasn’t hitting the ball great at all.

Sam Koch, former Ravens holder: Whether or not he has a rough pregame, he still comes out there and kicks the ball. So, to me, it was just a normal day.

But it wasn’t a normal day for Tucker. His first field goal attempt veered wide right from 49 yards for his first miss of the season. Tucker’s next kick was a 39-yarder that barely snuck inside the left upright.

Brown: He looked like a golfer who was babying 3-foot putts and not making them. I vividly remember saying to John [Harbaugh, Ravens coach]: ”He’s just not feeling it today. We got to be really smart on where we’re going to kick the rest of the game.” Then he goes ahead and smashes a 50-yarder [2:44 into the third quarter]. I looked at John and said, ”He’s back. We’re good.”

A fourth-and-19 ‘holy cow’ play

The Ravens trailed for the first time all game when Lions kicker Ryan Santoso hit a 35-yard field goal with 1:04 left in the fourth quarter. Down 17-16, Baltimore began its final drive at its own 25-yard line.

Brown: I said to John at the beginning of the drive: ”Can we get it to the 46? That gets us to 64 yards [for a field goal].”

On the first three plays, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson got sacked, threw an incompletion and got sacked again. The Ravens called their final timeout with 26 seconds remaining, facing a fourth-and-19. Baltimore’s win probability was less than 0.1%, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Patrick Mekari, Ravens offensive tackle: We had to get the ball off, and I think [the Lions] rushed three. So we had a couple double-teams, which helped and gave Lamar a little bit extra time. Then, he just made it happen. He made a great throw.

Jackson completed a 36-yard pass to Sammy Watkins, who was tackled inbounds at the Lions’ 48-yard line. Jackson spiked the ball with seven seconds left in the game and then threw the ball away on the next play to wind down the clock to three seconds.

Jack Fox, Lions punter: Somehow, they get a guy wide open, so you know how that goes. You think you’re kind of screwed once that happens. It’s just crazy that it could even happen.

Kevin Zeitler, Ravens guard: I mean, it was just a ”holy cow, we did it” type moment. That’s never an ideal situation to be in, but it also proves you never know what’s going to happen when you’ve got a ton of playmakers.

Nick Moore, Ravens long-snapper: Once we got the fourth and long, everyone was super hyped up on the sideline because we got a chance to win the game. I know Tuck, Sam and me were just ready to do our thing.

‘Ain’t no way he’s making this kick’

Tucker had converted 48 straight kicks in the fourth quarter, the longest active streak at the time. But, as he lined up for the 66-yarder, there was plenty of skepticism.

Jackson (after the game): I’m looking to see how many yards it is. I’m like, ”Dang this is different right here. I’ve never seen him in this predicament.”

Anthony Pittman, Lions linebacker: They brought the field goal unit out almost near midfield, and I’m like, ”Ain’t no way he’s making this kick.” So, I’m ready for the game to be over. I had my gloves off and everything.

Derrick Barnes, Lions linebacker: I ain’t going to lie to you. I was ready to go to the locker room and celebrate. I don’t know the dude. He’s not on my team, so I ain’t got that much faith in you.

Tucker: I just remember in the moment being thankful that I would have the opportunity to redeem myself for letting one go early in the game. I need to make this to redeem myself and win this game right now for everybody else who’s literally pouring their blood, sweat and tears into this thing. I need to find my A-plus-plus ball, even though I’m feeling like a C-minus right now.

Moore: It wasn’t until I got out there and then I was standing in the logo. I was like, ”Wow, this is really far.” I didn’t know that it was going to be an NFL record. I just knew it was going to be a long kick.

Brown: I was more nervous about the protection than Justin getting the ball there. Our average time from snap to kick is 1.3 seconds. On any longer field goal where he’s going to take that extra step back, it adds between 10 and 15 hundredths of a second. So now 1.3 becomes a 1.4 or a 1.45. Now as the field goal coach, you’re thinking of, ”OK, we need to protect this a little differently.”

Moore: It was definitely a little nerve-wracking. I mean, it’d be naive for me to say it wasn’t, just because it was my first game-winning field goal.

Brown: You’re going to get pressure from the rush side, which was at that time the right side. So I remember talking with Calais [Campbell, who blocked on the right side on the field goal unit]: ”You have to hold this longer.” This is the brilliance of Calais. He backs up and gives room [to the edge rusher] and he kind of rides with the guy. This really bought us that extra 10 to 15 hundredths of a second.

‘All I could hear was it hitting the crossbar’

It is believed there had only been 12 kicks attempted from 66 yards or longer before Tucker’s try. There was more drama as the ball descended in the Ford Field air.

Tucker: I definitely had a little bit of an adrenaline rush as I was approaching the ball. And when it came off my foot and it cleared the line, and I saw about a third or halfway to the uprights, I realized that ball was f—ing smoke.

Koch: It’s one of those things, being around Tucker as long as I have, you kind of get a sense of when that ball comes off a foot if it’s going to have a chance or not. When he hit it, he hit it right on the screws, as we would say, or right in the sweet spot. And so I knew when I looked up, there was a good chance — as long as it was going in the right direction — I knew we had a chance, because he put everything he had into it.

Pittman: It’s straight as an arrow right down the middle, and I’m like ”no way he’s making it, though.” It goes, and all I could hear was it hitting the crossbar.

Brown: When it hit the crossbar, I just said, ”F—!”

Alex Anzalone, Lions linebacker: I saw it doink the crossbar and I just was like ”that’s bouncing back up.” Then I heard the fans go silent.

Zeitler: I felt like it was going slow motion. It was a big momentary pause. There was absolute silence, and then absolute wildness.

Tucker: I saw the ball bounce off the crossbar, and from the front-on view, you can’t really tell if the ball is going forward or backward off the crossbar. But then I saw [Ravens team services manager] Avon Bryant’s hands go up [under the goal post]. I realized, ”Oh man. Oh wow, we made that.”

‘The time of our lives’

The entire Ravens sideline erupted and ran onto the field for Tucker’s 17th game-winning kick of his career. Outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins popped a hamstring in the celebration.

Mekari: I don’t even think I was looking at the ball. When the ball went up, it just felt like it was good. I just went and celebrated with [offensive lineman] Ben Powers. I don’t even think I saw it go in. I didn’t look, because he’s the best.

Barnes: I couldn’t see from the angle. I’m waiting on the refs. They put their hands up, and my jaw just dropped. I’m like, ”This is crazy.”

Brown: I was just frozen. It’s the Jack Buck — “I can’t believe what I just saw.”

Moore: Everyone was just running around like chickens with their head cut off, just running everywhere. I turned around, trying to find Tuck, and Tuck’s full sprinting down the sidelines. It was just utter chaos after that — everyone was running trying to chase him.

Tucker: A handful of the offensive linemen were running straight down the field. I turned to celebrate with them. I jumped into Andre Smith‘s outstretched hands like I was in “Dirty Dancing” and got lifted up by the guys. And, boy, did we ever have the time of our lives.

‘It really is a matter of when’

Before Tucker’s winning kick, there had been eight attempts to break Prater’s record in an eight-year span. Since Tucker eclipsed that record two years ago, no one has even tried to surpass 66 yards. Will anyone break Tucker’s record?

Tucker: I probably should have already, but I’m not concerned at all about when it gets broken. If it does — I say ”if” but it really is a matter of when. I mean, the game elevates and evolves year after year. A little bit selfishly, I hope that we get to go out there and break it. Or when [Tucker’s 7-year-old son] Easton takes over for me, he gets to break it one day.

Prater: I think there’s a few guys that could do it, especially in the right circumstances. There are guys that are definitely capable of making up to a 70-yard kick. I’d love to get another shot at breaking it again.

Koch: So if the right situation arises, I think it could potentially be broken. There’s only a handful of people that could potentially get it that far. But if they get that opportunity, maybe it happens.

Brown: I think it’ll either be eclipsed in Denver or it’ll be eclipsed at a game where there’s a lot of wind. There’s some strong kickers now. And listen, there’s nothing saying Justin’s not going to have a chance to hit a 67, 68, 69, 70. I mean, I don’t put anything past him because he’s the greatest that’s ever done it.

ESPN’s Eric Woodyard and Josh Weinfuss contributed to this article.

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