Field position is paramount in football.
In a game where possessions are hard to come by, sometimes no more than the number of fingers on one hand, where exactly one drives starts can be the difference in the game.
The Chargers made sure to stress the importance of that to kicker Nick Novak at the end of last season.
He went to work.
“I’m well aware of the importance of field position,” Novak said. “I know that’s important to getting into the playoffs and winning a Super Bowl. That’s why they told me what to do and I went to the drawing board and got better at it.”
Novak said the Chargers wanted him to improve a “couple yards” on kickoffs for this season. He made that a point of emphasis during his offseason workouts and throughout the summer.
“There will be a five-yard improvement,” Novak said. “For me, it’s going to be a deeper kick with better hang-time.
Opponents averaged just 22.2 yards per kickoff return against the Chargers last season, good for eighth best in the NFL. Only two teams allowed an average of less than 20 yards per kickoff return.
Despite kicking just 10 touchbacks last season, the Chargers were among the NFL’s best in opponent kickoff return average, largely due to a strong coverage unit and, as Novak mentioned, hang-time.
So, why all the hype regarding undrafted free-agent kicker Josh Lambo?
Sure, he’s shown he has a big leg in two preseason games thus far.
But that’s it.
Novak has a body of work, particularly over the past three seasons that proves he is among the NFL’s best kickers.
He made a franchise record 91.9 percent of his field goals in 2013 (34 of 37), and tied John Carney’s franchise single-season record of field goals made with 34.
Over 2013 and 2014, Novak made a franchise-record 32 straight field goals.
Though he made only two of his last five kicks to end the 2014 season, the absence of Mike Scifres, who did not play the final three games after breaking his clavicle against New England in early December, as holder cannot be understated.
Moreover, Novak played through an ankle injury on his plant foot, which hindered him on kickoffs, during the second half of last season.
Look, Novak is battled tested in just about every aspect of the game. He clawed his way to a starting job in the NFL nearly seven years after he made his debut. Since then, he’s been nothing but consistent, clutch, and reliable.
“Every year is a competition,” Novak said. “Whether there’s a guy here or not, I’m competing against the 31 other kickers in the league. For me, I’m just trying to build off what we did last year. I’m preparing for Detroit. I’m preparing for the season and hopefully not the last here in San Diego. But if it is, hopefully we win a Super Bowl. For us on the team, that’s what we want to bring to San Diego for the first time.”
Competition is nothing new for Novak. But, if the Chargers decide to go with Lambo, it will be a big gamble. The bottom line is, Lambo is untested and a team with playoff aspirations shouldn’t bank on a rookie kicker to help get them back to the postseason.
“I’m not taking this lightly,” Novak said. “I know that this is a competition. I have to approach it as if, this is my job, I’m the starting kicker for the San Diego Chargers and every single day I go about my business trying to get better.
“As a kicker, it’s black and white. You look at the numbers. I know when it comes down to the fourth quarter, in December or whenever, that matters too.”
–Andrew Burer (TWITTER: @andrewburer)
PODCAST: Annie Heilbrunn and Andrew Burer break down the Chargers kicking competition, the cornerback depth (or lack thereof), and the offensive line’s progress as the team prepares to take on the Seahawks in week three of the preseason.