After notching four more points on Sunday against Amsterdam, Buc-allocated K Todd France owns or shares three league kicking records with one week to go
(by Henry Hodgson, NFLEurope.com)
Hamburg Sea Devils kicker Todd France is on the verge of rewriting the record books in NFL Europe. With two weeks left to play in the 2005 season, France is already the holder of a new league record for the most field goal attempts in a season, and has moved within touching distance of a handful of other all-time marks.
France has converted 22 of 29 field goals (long of 54) and 14 of 14 PATs this season for a league-leading points haul of 82. That puts him on the verge of breaking single season records set by Barcelona Dragons kicker Scott Szeredy in 1995. Szeredy was the holder of the single season record for field goals attempted (27) until France broke it against Berlin in Week 8, and still holds the marks for field goals made in a season (23) and points scored (85).
(UPDATE: France made his only field goal and PAT attempts of the game on Sunday in Hamburg's 27-10 loss to Amsterdam and now owns the points record, with 86, and a share of the field goals made record.)
"It is funny how this season has turned out for me," admits the Tampa Bay Buccaneers allocated kicker. "In the first game of the year I had six attempts, which is the most I have ever had in a game. I just assumed that was a freak thing, but it actually dictated kind of how things have gone this season. I had six attempts again two games ago, and four last week."
The Sea Devils own the league's highest red zone scoring rate in NFL Europe, getting points on 92% of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Unlike every other team, however, the majority of those points have been field goals rather than touchdowns – with a 9-13 touchdown to field goal ratio.
"I keep hoping for opportunities," admits France. "Fortunately we have been able to win some games, but unfortunately we have also lost more than I think we should have too."
France's success has not only come inside the red zone. The strong-legged kicker has nailed two kicks of over 50 yards this season – worth four points in NFL Europe, and 8 of 11 from over 40 yards.
"[Head] Coach [Jack] Bicknell has let me try the long ones, and I have played for coaches in the past who have been skeptical about that kind of thing because they are hard to make, and if you miss you hand over good field position," France explains. "He has shown his faith in me so far, and hopefully that will continue."
Bicknell's faith in France has been repaid by the league's top points scorer, who has had a hand in all four of the team's victories this season.
"Todd is a very solid and consistent kicker," said Bicknell. "He practices hard and when game time comes he's ready to perform. We are very happy to have had him on our squad this season."
The 2005 campaign is France's second stint in NFL Europe, as he spent the 2003 season with the Rhein Fire. That season he made it to World Bowl XI, where he ended up on the losing side, but did manage to kick a 39-yard field goal in their 35-16 loss to the Frankfurt Galaxy. He enjoyed his first experience in the league, and it was an easy decision to return when offered the chance by the Buccaneers. In his eyes, this Hamburg Sea Devils team is a more accomplished and exciting squad to play for.
"It is a different type of season, and I have to say I am having a much better time over here this time around," he admits. "A lot of that has to do with having a better personal season, but also I am surrounded by a great group of guys and our team chemistry is a lot better. It would be disappointing for me if we don't make World Bowl this time, but I am taking away a lot of great experiences too.
"I really wanted to go to the team that would give me the best opportunity. I know Düsseldorf well, but I was hoping to be on a good team that would let me get good experience and win some games."
One of the major differences between kicking in the league then and now is the lack of national kickers. Until this year every NFL Europe team had a national kicker, who would attempt all kicks under 30 yards and all PATs. That meant less opportunities for an American kicker to shine.
"Having national kickers on the scene was understandable in the way that it promoted the game to the locals, but it did not necessarily make it easy for the American kickers that came over here," says France. "Two years ago I only had nine attempts in 11 games, and there would be some games where you would only get to kick off. By the time you got in it was tough to get in a rhythm, and you were only making long field goal attempts, so your percentage would go way down and it was really frustrating."
With additional opportunities for kickers to excel, France believes that the league will produce more NFL specialists of the caliber of Pro Bowlers David Akers (Berlin 1999) and Adam Vinatieri (Amsterdam 1996) – both NFL Europe graduates.
"It is a great situation for us over here, especially without the national kicker rule in place. For the longest time, though, NFL Europe has been a great league for guys like me to come in and show the professional coaches that we are capable of competing at this level and getting us more experience to make a squad back home. I think NFL Europe accelerates that process."
Earning a kicking spot in the NFL without that path through NFL Europe can be a tough job, with the naturally conservative demeanor of NFL head coaches limiting opportunities for young kickers to prove themselves on that stage. More often than not an NFL coach will side with an older, experienced kicker ahead of one fresh from college, no matter whether the younger one has out-kicked the veteran in practice and camp.
"There are a lot of teams that just won't even consider a guy like me who does not have experience kicking in the NFL," France says. "You can look at it both ways – maybe they are missing out on an opportunity, but at the same time they are playing safe and going with a guy who they know will make you a high percentage of kicks. I have heard some stories about guys who feel that they have kicked as well or better than the veteran, but don't get the job and were not given the fair chance because of who they are and their lack of experience at the professional level."
"There are coaches out there, though, who will take a risk and give guys like me who have been out of college for a few years another chance at it, and I am hoping that I get that chance this year with Tampa."
The opportunity that France has to make it in training camp with the Buccaneers has been a long time coming for the Toledo graduate. France is the all-time leading points scorer among kickers in MAC history with 320 in his career with the Rockets, and was a Lou Groza award nominee as a senior. However, the 25-year old never imagined he would get an opportunity to pursue football as a profession.
"It has been a long road, and one that when I came out of college I never expected to follow," he says. "I came out from Toledo thinking that I would try out for one year and see what happened, but after being released from Minnesota in my first training camp the head coach told me that I would get a chance to play over here. I really wanted to see and experience Europe, and this gave me the opportunity to continue my football career, and hopefully get a chance to make it next season. I didn't win a job after my last time out here, but year on year I find myself saying 'one more time, next year it will happen for me'. I think last year with the Giants was my best opportunity, and I had a pretty good preseason, but I guess it was not enough, because I still got cut."
After almost winning the Giants job, France reapplied himself, and wound up being signed by the Buccaneers. The Bucs have ranked last in the NFL in field goal accuracy the past two seasons, and went through two kickers in the 2004 season, releasing both Martin Gramatica and Jay Taylor after inconsistent performances. France will compete with Matt Bryant – another NFL Europe grad who was with Frankfurt in 2002. Ironically, Bryant and France went head to head in training camp for the Giants job in 2004, and both players tried out for the Miami Dolphins midway through last season when Olindo Mare went down with an injury. This time, however, it looks like being a straight head to head battle for the job, rather than the multiple kicker contests he has found himself in in the past.
"I am used to three man competitions in the past, but it looks like it will be between me and Matt Bryant," France says. "He is a good kicker who I know from last summer in New York, so I am hoping for a fair shot, and we will see how things work out."
Like many kickers, France started out playing soccer before turning his hand – or foot – to football.
"I started playing soccer at the age of four with my two elder bothers. I watched my oldest brother change to football as a senior in high school, and I did the same," he says. "I was able to get a college scholarship which helped me pay for my education and which I am very grateful for. Hopefully I can continue to make a career out of it."
If he does make a career out of it – and on recent evidence there is no doubt that he can – France has one secret that he perhaps should not admit to Tampa Bay head coach John Gruden or too many of his teammates.
"I am a much bigger soccer fan than a football fan," France laughs. "Truthfully I have never really played football, I don't know any plays or schemes or defenses or anything like that. I have a pretty simple job to do and I just go out and do it as well as I can. Most of the time I would really rather be playing soccer!"