Why is it easier to kick a field goal from the left hash-mark (for a right-footed kicker)?

A letter sent to the head coach of my beloved home team, the Houston Texans, on October 31, 2011:


Mr. Gary Kubiak, Head Coach

The Houston Texans
Two Reliant Park
Houston, TX 77054

Re:  Field Goals, Hash Marks

Dear Coach Kubiak:

Your kicker, Neil Rackers, has missed only two field-goal attempts this year.  If you will check the videos, you will see that those two kicks have one thing in common:  each was kicked from the right hash-mark.  That was no accident or coincidence.

Ask any right-footed field-goal kicker whose natural ball-flight is a right-to-left “hook,” and, if he is willing to discuss the topic candidly, he will probably admit that he prefers to kick from the left hash-mark, that he is OK with kicking from midway between the hash-marks,  that he would prefer not to kick from right of center, and that he is quite uncomfortable kicking from the right hash mark.  I don’t know whether you are a golfer as well as a football player and coach, but if you know much about golf, you probably know that pro golfers are just like kickers:  all right-handed pros whose natural ball-flight is a right-to-left hook or draw, prefer to hit their drive to a position from which they can hit their approach shot from the left.   The obvious exceptions are left-footed kickers, who prefer to approach the target from the right rather than the left, and right-footed kickers who kick or hit the ball straight or with a fade or slice to the right – the best-known of those kickers is Robbie Gould of the Bears, who has pretty much a straight ball flight and who accordingly has just as much success kicking from the right hash mark as he does from the left.

The reasons for the discrepancy are rooted in physiology (or kinesiology) and geometry:

  • A right-footed kicker (or right-handed golfer) whose ball flight is a hook, has a wider target when he kicks (or hits) from the left.  Picture the ball-flight on a kick from the left hash-mark: the ball is kicked on a diagonal line across the field toward the right-hand goal post, and then, in mid-flight, it starts to curve left, so that by the time it crosses the plane of the goal-post uprights, it is actually moving straight at that plane.  If he starts the kick a bit too far right or left, or it curves more or less than he intended, he still has a big margin for error, because his target is the entire space between the left upright and the right upright.    Now, picture the ball flight on a kick from the right hash-mark, and notice that the ball starts on pretty much a straight line toward the goal line but that, in mid-flight, once it curves left, the football is now moving diagonally.  When that happens, the target shrinks, just like what happens to a hockey player who tries to shoot from an angle to the right of the net – the farther to the right he is when he hits his shot, the smaller the effective space into which he must squeeze the puck.   Literally, it is geometry, but as a practical matter, every hockey player in the world knows instinctively that a shot from the side has a smaller target than a shot from the center.  For a hockey player, a slap shot may curve a bit, but even the longest shot doesn’t curve very much, so left vs. right means very little and the angle of attack is everything; for a football kicker, the curvature of the football in flight can be a huge amount, especially when the kick is from 40 or 50 yards or longer, so you want to kick from a position where your natural curve eventually points the ball straight at the target rather sideways to the target.
  • The second reason is more a matter of kinesiology.  It is much easier to properly line up a field goal kick from the left hash mark, because, roughly speaking, your target is the right-hand goal post:  you aim at the right post, then let the ball hook to the center.  Visually, that is a very natural and intuitive alignment guide, and while you may allow more or less deviation based on the distance of the kick, the amount of hook you expect, the wind, etc., the right-hand post is an easy point of reference – a little bit left or right of it is easy.  On the other hand, from the right hash mark, there is no target, you just have to imagine one, and it requires much more imagination (and intuitive geometry skills) to kick to an imaginary target and then expect an imaginary amount of right-to-left curvature in flight.  Again, any hockey player or skilled golfer will tell you that he would rather not have to hit a target with a shot that approaches that target on an angle.

My point, as I am sure you have guessed, is that, while a football coach cannot always anticipate the outcome of the play that turns out to be the last play before he attempts a field goal, sometimes he can.  If you have 3rd and short, you often will have every reason to go with the play with the best chance of getting the 1st down, even it involves running or passing to the right.  On the other hand, if you have 3rd and long, or if you really would be happy to settle for a field goal and you have no special reason to be trying for the perfect 3rd down play, then your 3rd down play should probably be a run to the left, so that, even if it is not successful, you are positioned for a field goal from the left hash mark or at least from left of the center of the field.

Mr. Rackers appears to be an excellent kicker, and he might not even want to think about this topic; he might prefer to maintain the belief that he can make any kick from any angle or distance, and he might not want to admit to you (or to himself) any weakness from any angle.  But that does not mean you cannot do the smart thing, and give him the best possible chance for success whenever it costs you little or nothing, strategically, to put the ball in the best position for your kicker.

Meanwhile, congratulations on what appears likely to be a great season!  (Especially if you can convert on all your field goal opportunities.)

Best wishes,

Michael E. C. Moss

The Woodlands, Texas

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