It’s coming up on a year since the Eagles made the kind of commitment to Jake Elliott that most NFL kickers, or aspiring NFL kickers, don’t often get to savor. In late November, they signed him to a five-year contract extension that, by the time it is scheduled to end in 2024, could pay him up to $21.8 million. It guaranteed him $10.45 million.
Now, compared with the average NFL player, kickers tend to have long careers in the league. The job, of course, doesn’t present the same wear-and-tear that, say, linebacker or running back does. Not physically, anyway. But Elliott was in his third season when the two parties agreed to the extension, which means that the Eagles envisioned it possible, even preferable, that he would remain their kicker for eight years. By any standard, that’s a healthy amount of trust to place in a player, regardless of his position.
So, when Elliott has a season like this one he’s having now, what does he think? What do the Eagles think?
Until the Eagles' 22-21 victory over the Giants on Thursday night, it would have been unfair to call Elliott’s season poor. Yes, he had missed three field goals through the team’s first six games. But all of them were from at least 52 yards, and his longest attempt of the three, a 57-yarder earlier this month against the Steelers, came at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, which, because of its turf and swirling winds, is notoriously hard on kickers.
But then Elliott hooked a 29-yard try Thursday night, a genuinely bad miss of an easy attempt, and sometimes it takes just one such moment for a coach to start doubting a kicker, or for a kicker to start doubting himself.
“He’s made so many big kicks for us, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and really the operation, from snap, hold, to kick,” coach Doug Pederson said. “It’s just, we’ve got to keep working through it. He’s a professional. He knows that we need to make those. We need to be better there, and he needs to make those kicks. But it doesn’t challenge my confidence one way or another. I’m going to continue to put him out there.”
He doesn’t have another choice; Elliott is the only kicker on the roster. But it is worth reviewing the totality of Elliott’s career with the Eagles, just to render his performance accurately.
As Pederson mentioned, Elliott has hit some big field goals, particularly during the 2017-18 season. Two of the most important and memorable kicks in franchise history are his: the 61-yarder to beat the Giants on Sept. 24, 2017 – no one has ever kicked a longer field goal for the Eagles – and the 46-yarder to provide the final eight-point margin of victory in Super Bowl LII. He went 4-for-4 in another win that season over the Chargers and 7-for-7 in that postseason, then hit two final-minute game-winners during the 2018 season.
Yes, big kicks, all of them. Now here’s the perspective: In just one of his four seasons with the Eagles – it was last season, 2019 – has Elliott been an above-average NFL kicker.
In 2017, he made 83.9% of his field goals. The league average was 84.3%. In 2018, he made 83.9% again. The league average went up slightly, to 84.7%. Among Eagles kickers, Elliott’s career percentage, 82.0, ranks below David Akers' (82.4%), Caleb Sturgis' (84.8%), Alex Henery’s (86.0%), and Cody Parkey’s (87.5%).
This is not to suggest that the Eagles should start auditioning replacements for Elliott or that their giving him a contract extension was necessarily a mistake. But it is to point out how fickle and fraught and unpredictable the job is. Kickers have gotten so good over time that any and all missed field goals have, in turn, gotten rarer and more costly, for teams and especially for the men who swing their legs for a living.
“It’s all about getting rid of those negatives and visualizing the ball going through those uprights,” Elliott said in an interview last year, “rather than thinking, ‘Oh, God, what happens? What happens if I miss? What happens if I don’t make this?’
"You can’t think ahead like that. You’ve got to find your little zone. You think about your peak performances in the past and visualize them over and over again, might watch videos of them. The kicking game’s all about confidence. You’ve got to be confident, borderline-cocky. That’s how I approach it.”