Eddy Pineiro isn’t the only kicker going through a rut in 2019. If anything, he’s part of a larger, bizarre trend.
On 625 field goal attempts entering this weekend, NFL kickers have made 499 — good for a success rate of 79.8 percent. That figure represents the first time since 2003 the league’s field goal rate has dipped below 80 percent, but it’s not like this 2019 drop-off could’ve been seen coming.
From 2013-2018, kickers made at least 84 percent of their field goals in a given year; in 2018, they made 84.7 percent of their kicks, the second-highest rate in that span (behind 86.5 percent in 2013).
So does Pineiro, who’s made 70.6 percent of his kicks entering Week 12, know why this is happening?
“Not really, honestly,” Pineiro said. “I don’t really talk to other kickers — I mean, I talked to (the Lions’) Matt Prater and (guys) like that, guys who are experienced and just ask, try to pick off their mind and feed off their mind. But I don’t ask why they missed and stuff like that.”
This isn’t because the NFL has overwhelmingly trended toward cheap, young kickers like Pineiro at a high rate (rookies Austin Seibert and Matt Gay have made 88.9 and 87 percent of their field goals, respectively). Longtime reliable kickers like Greg Zuerlein (78.3 percent), Adam Vinatieri (76.2 percent) and Robbie Gould (65 percent) have had significantly disappointing seasons.
Elsewhere: The Giants’ Aldrick Rosas has seen his field goal percentage drop 17 points from 2018 to 2019; Jason Myers, who signed a rich free agent deal with the Seahawks, is down 18 percent. And Miami's Jason Sanders’ field goal percentage is 20.8 percent worse this year than last year.
Plenty of young kickers — like Pineiro, the Jets’ Sam Ficken (63.6 percent), the Chargers/49ers’ Chase McLaughlin (71.4 percent) and the Panthers’ Joey Slye (73.9 percent) — have struggled, though.
“I do think that sometimes the perception of it is kickers just grow on trees and that you can just pluck one,” Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said, noting the league’s worst field goal percentage in 16 years. “Obviously we don't want to be a part of that and help that number. It's just one of those things — there's younger kickers.
“I think that going back to your patience, you don't want to underreact. So what's that fine line, and I think that some teams can do that. That's probably why there's an influx of guys coming through and the consistency gets hurt that way.”
The league-wide context here is important: A number of teams could be in the market for a kicker in 2020’s offseason. The Bears will, probably, be one of them, even if it’s only to add competition for Pineiro during OTAs, minicamp and training camp.
But finding a reliable kicker in free agency looks difficult, especially for a team still bearing the scars of Cody Parkey’s disastrous contract. Using one of the team’s meager amount of draft picks on one may not be viable, either. And would it really be better for the Bears to try a different undrafted free agent who’s never kicked at Soldier Field again in 2020?
So a path the Bears can follow is hanging on to Pineiro with the knowledge that 1) Kickers have struggled across the board in 2019 and 2) There is a track record of young kickers improving after inconsistent rookie seasons.
Gould made 77.8 percent of his field goals for the 2005 Bears before launching a career that left him as the leading scoring in franchise history. Vinatieri — way back in 1996 — made 77.1 percent of his field goals for the New England Patriots. Mason Crosby didn’t make more than 80 percent of his field goals for the Green Bay Packers until his fifth year in the league. Only 26 of Prater’s first 38 field goals (68.4 percent) went through the uprights before he went on to become one of the league’s better kickers in Denver and Detroit.
The Bears believe in Pineiro’s strong leg and upside, to the point where they didn’t bring in anyone for a tryout this week after he missed two field goals against the Los Angeles Rams. While coach Matt Nagy needs to re-gain his trust in Pineiro on gamedays, Tabor relayed to his 24-year-old the team’s trust in him.
“He said you’re my guy, I’m not bringing anybody in and we’re going to go through this process together,” Pineiro said. “We’re going to be going through it — the highs and the lows — together.”
The Bears see a significant part of Pineiro’s development as being how handles kicking in less-than-ideal weather conditions. And it’s not just how he handles the cold and wind at Soldier Field — it’s how he handles his opportunities to kick in warm weather during Chicago’s brutally-long winters.
Pineiro didn’t handle that well in Los Angeles, trying to kick his first field goal (which went wide left) too hard in 70-degree weather and then over-compensating on his next attempt, pushing it wide right.
“Going from kicking in the cold and then going to a nice weather place, you just want to kill the ball and the ball's going a lot farther than it usually does when you kick in the cold,” Pineiro said. “… It's a transition for me. This is my first year. Trying to transition in a good way. It's all a learning experience.”
Pineiro still has to make good on those learning experiences and the team’s faith in him over the Bears’ final six games of 2019. If his field goal percentage can creep toward 80 percent by the end of the season, he’ll have built himself a foundation on which to build in 2020.
The Bears don’t want to go through this whole kicking search again. Ideally for everyone in Halas Hall, Pineiro becomes a better kicker after learning the hard way how difficult it can be to kick in Chicago. It’s happened before, and until further notice, the Bears believe it can happen again with Pineiro.
“There's no excuses,” Pineiro said. “I’ve gotta make all my kicks. But I'm learning on my way. This is my first time kicking in the cold, different situations with wind and stuff like that. Learning experience. Gotta be confident and go out there and try my best.”