Blame the Stanford Kicker! Blame the Kicker?


At first I thought this post was stretching this week's blog theme of applying Lean principles in everyday life, but I think it actually does fit quite well, at least for those of us for whom sports is a part of our daily life.

Last night, I was able to attend the Fiesta Bowl game in Arizona (my father-in-law is an Oklahoma State alum and fan). Yes, that's a marching band picture since I'm a former college marching band drummer at Northwestern.

It was a crazy game in many ways and it looked like Stanford would win as they lined up to kick a relatively easy 35-yard field goal. The kicker, redshirt freshman Jordan Williamson, missed the kick, hooking it very wide left, so the game went into overtime.

Williamson then missed a 43 yard attempt in overtime (again, wide left – his third miss of the night) and Oklahoma State made a field goal to win the game.

The kick, from a 2015 documentary about the kicker and the missed kicks:

Stanford fans probably cursed the kicker, blaming the kicker for the loss. But, in keeping with the lessons taught by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and the Toyota Production System, can we simply blame the kicker?

Jordan Williamson is part of a team, as we all are at work. As Dr. Deming taught, we all work in a system. The Lean philosophy, as an extension of Deming's work, teaches us to first look at the system and processes before just blaming and punishing an individual. This is a lesson that's also being applied to the improvement of patient safety in healthcare.

Dr. Deming wrote:

“American management is quick to assign blame to an individual when the problem, is in fact, a fault in the system.”

Williamson, as the kicker, is the most obvious “goat” in this situation. He's the equivalent to the nurse who administers the adult dose of the drug heparin to a baby in the Neonatal ICU (as happened in the case of actor Dennis Quaid's twins). The kicker is at the “sharp end” of the system, as they would say in the patient safety movement. There are a lot of pieces to the system.

Does anybody blame Stanford's star quarterback Andrew Luck (the expected #1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft) or the offense for not scoring a touchdown toward the end of the game? Does anybody blame the head coach for being somewhat conservative in the last minute once Stanford was in field goal range? I believe they didn't take even one shot for the end zone passing, as many teams would do. Does anybody blame the defense for allowing Oklahoma State to score 35 points or to tie the game with just over two minutes left?

It's human nature to blame an individual. It's the kicker's fault. Or is it?  Williamson was a semifinalist for the annual Lou Groza award that honors the best college kicker, so he's deemed to be one of the top 20 in his position (out of about 120 starting kickers in the top tier of college football). So, let's grant that he's at least an above average kicker. But, he's a young kicker, so they tend to be nervous in pressure nationally televised situations (or it's understandable that they would be). Good kickers miss kicks. It happens. Williamson had missed just three kicks all season, then he missed three in yesterday's game.

But how often do good kickers miss two in a row (including the overtime kick)?

Williamson's teammates came to his defense:

Daniel Zychlinski made the most out of a low snap but not enough to spin the laces out of the way. Williamson hooked it left again.

“I told him to keep his head up,” fullback Ryan Hewitt said. “He's still the best kicker I know.”

When they got their turn, the Cowboys needed just two plays to get to the Stanford 1. That led to a 22-yard field goal attempt for Quinn Sharp. He nailed it.

“It's not an easy feeling,” Sharp said. “Everything comes down to you. You are the last one. It's on the line. And people can look at any plays throughout the game. But most of the time when a situation like that happens, they don't look at those plays. They look at it as the kicker messed up or the kicker did this. It was his fault.”

One by one, Williamson's teammates came over to his locker. Senior wide receiver Chris Owusu spent extra time embracing Williamson, whispering words of encouragement into his ear.

A field goal attempt involves all 11 players. There's the long snapper, the holder, and the kicker. There are eight other players blocking the other team. If any one of those pieces falls apart, the kick fails. As mentioned above, the ball was placed by the holder for the overtime kick so that the laces of the ball were facing the kicker (see photo). The ideal placement of the ball has the laces pointed away from the kicker, as kicking the laces reduces the distance of a kick and can make it hook or slice more wildly after contact.

Nobody says “blame the snapper!” or “blame the holder!” unless there is an obvious mistake, and that wasn't the case on the overtime kick.

A friend on Facebook made an insightful comment, looking at the role of  the coaches:

“The young man (kicker) clearly wasn't mentally prepared for such a situation. He obviously has the physical ability to make both of the kicks he missed…but you could see the fear in his eyes and body language. The Georgia kicker had the exact same look. So, to me, the special teams coach and head coach need to figure out how to ensure all their players are ready for those pressure packed situations. That's why I blame management. Ha!”

He wasn't really serious about blaming management. Situations like this aren't about blaming the kicker or blaming the coach (nor is improving healthcare quality about blaming the nurse or blaming the managers). It's about understanding the system and recognizing what can be done to prevent future errors. I'm not sure what Stanford's countermeasures will be. I know they won't be reacting by punishing the kicker and making him run extra laps. That would be stupid and demoralizing. I'm sure Jordan Williamson feels bad enough. But, he has three more seasons to redeem himself.

In situations like the medication error that injured the Quaid twins, it's common for the nurse who administered the medication to take the fall. But, the nurse is like the kicker. You need a good snap, a good hold, and good blocking. If a nurse gives a medication that's not even supposed to be in the NICU to a baby, the nurse isn't solely at fault. The system failed the nurse, just as it failed the babies.

Does the kicker (or the nurse) deserve SOME blame? Sure. But all of the blame? No way.

p.s. Thanks to ePatient Dave for prodding me to blog about this after being part of the private Facebook conversation.

Update: See this blog post with comments from another former college kicker who reached out to me:

#TBT: Don't Blame the Kicker, Don't Blame the Oscar Presenter, and Don't Blame the Healthcare Professional


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. btw, I couldn’t agree more that this is applying lean in everyday life. Nothing could seem (at first glance) farther than lean healthcare than a field goal attempt! But the question of “Whom do we blame” is so toxic in so many ways, and so seemingly OBVIOUS in this case, that it’s a great lesson – in daily life.

  2. When I coach girls soccer teams, part of my mantra is that it is NEVER the goalkeeper’s fault if a ball gets past her into the net — even if it appears that she could have stopped it. It is the rest of the team’s fault for not keeping the ball at the other end of the field!

  3. It reminds me of a high school kicker that numerous times during the season his chances to kick a 40 to 45 yard (which he was very capable of) were passed over. Eventually, after the team came within 1 point on a 35-yard field goal that cleared by substantial margin the kicker was asked to attempt one from 44 yards to win it. It failed miserably, the snap was low, the kicker kicked it low and it caught the helmet of the guard that literally stood straight up.

    The coach’s comment to the newspapers was that the kicker always had a tendency to kick it low on long field goals. The kicker had never heard that comment in four years of being in the program.

    This is very similar to someone not willing to pull the andon chord. The conversation, we had about the Wall Street Journal article on the GM Brake Pedal incident. The feeling of fear or “getting in trouble” force us to look the other way many times or from a kicker’s perspective make a poor kick.

    Respect for people and building an empathetic culture goes a long way in developing people, teams and organizations. A culture of success does not happen overnight or from a team perspective in one season. Even how we define it may be difficult. Do we define it by a successful kick or the spirit of camaraderie?

    Mark, excellent observations.

    P.S. The high school kicker was my son.

  4. Joe –

    Thanks for sharing the story about your son. I feel for him.

    Mark –

    A couple thoughts about kickers. First, the career leader in total points scored for all players is kicker Kyle Brotzman from Boise State, from 2007-2010. Despite having kicked many game winners he probably had the most expensive misses in history. Last season, with a BCS berth on the line, Kyle missed a game-winning kick as time expired in the last game of the season against Nevada. Bye bye BCS, hello Maaco Bowl, a multi-million dollar payout difference for Boise State. The key thing to remember is that without Brotzman’s capabilities in previous games Boise State may not even be in position to play for a BCS game.

    The same can be said for Williamson, for my next point. Stanford had every opportunity in the prior 59 minutes to put themselves in position to not have to rely on Williamson. Sure, the kicker has a job to do, but so much more led to that play occurring.

    Thanks for sharing, Mark!

  5. Virginia Tech’s 3rd-string kicker is 3 for 3 so far tonight. I’m not trying to jinx him, since they are down 3 points and they might get into a position to need a game tying field goal now…

    They are the only 3 kicks he has made (attempted) in his career. I would hope some Stanford fan isn’t saying “wish we had that kid instead.” It’s just 3 data points.

    • Sugar Bowl announcers are saying that Virginia Tech needs to not be like Stanford, that they need to go for a touchdown instead of laying up to settle for a FG at the end of the game.

      • The Va Tech kicker made his 4th kick to send it to OT, but then missed one in OT, setting Michigan up for victory (unless their kicker misses). Sorry for the play-by-play. The announcers keep mentioning how the teams need to not rely so much on their kickers (a broader system issue).

  6. Aside from it being a broad system issue, I sure hope people don’t take each individual event as evidence of the rightness or wrongness of a method.

  7. Mark,

    Great post! One thing that always bothers me about football is the blame game.

    It always comes down to the kicker, even if it is not a last minute field goal attempt. If he misses one early in the game the response is “If the kicker had not missed that FG attempt we could have won”

    The entire system plays a part that others forget about:
    Lineman: missed blocks, wrong blocking assignment
    Quarter Back: Missed passes, Interceptions
    Receivers: Dropped passes, running the wrong route
    Running back: fumbles, slips
    Coaches: calling wrong plays, not adjusting to defense

    That is just the offense and a few examples that are forgotten. If we improve the overall system then the kicker is part of that system and not the Scapegoat nor the Hero.

    As an Oklahoma State fan I was happy with the missed kick. I lost a lot of hair during that game. It was what a BCS game is supposed to be. I wish OSU was playing next Monday but they performed great and both teams put on a great show.
    No Movie could have matched that drama, suspense, or excitement.

    As a football fan when the camera showed Williamson warming up and he was on one knee I felt for him and that the pressure was weighing on him. I even told my wife they don’t even have to call a time out to freeze him.
    In our daily lives we all will or have had moments where we feel the pressure is too much. Sometimes we fail sometimes we succeed. As long as we find a way to learn from it that is what’s important.

    The other question we should ask is:
    Will Williamson grow from this experience?
    Will we grow from our failures? (To me it is not a failure if you tried)

    Now back to the important part of the game!!
    TO THE BONE!!!!!

  8. In yesterday’s NFL conference championship games, you had the Ravens kicker miss a relatively easy 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime. I’m sure many are simply blaming the kicker.

    “Blaming the kicker is not fair”

    Then, the 49ers lost because their backup punt returner (who had only returned punts twice before) blew the game with miscues, including a fumble in overtime.

    Does anyone blame head coach Jim Harbaugh or 49’ers management for not having a competent backup ready and available?

  9. Blaming the kicker is not fair, but in Cundiff’s case he truly shanked that kick. He even said post game he kicks that ball a thousand times. I do feel bad for Kyle Williams, a ton of pressure on the kid. The death threats put on him are ridiculous. Great games, and the rematch between NYG and NE should be a good one.

  10. Um, I thought the whole point of this thread, in the Lean context, is that it’s simply not useful nor helpful to think about whom to “blame.”

    Please see Paul Levy’s comment above.

    I know we have a cultural tradition of worshipping the hero who hits the walk-off home run (or kicks the winning field goal), and conversely blaming the person who fails to do so. But that is literally and figuratively short-sighted. Those *moments* are to be appreciated or rued, but our reaction to them is far out of proportion to the individual’s actual influence on the ultimate outcome.

    Worse, that urge to make all about the one moment is what drove a pediatric nurse to commit suicide in Seattle last year after the media feeding frenzy when she made an error that resulted in a death.

    In case anyone missed it, in Nov 2010 the HHS Inspector General released a report that said there are 15,000 accidental deaths a month, just among Medicare patients. It is, in a sense, insane to deal with this by hounding the person who took the last step in a profusely dysfunctional chain. If responsibility lies on any one head, it must be the managers who allow this to continue.

    • Agreed, Dave, these are all system issues. We will never improve through blaming and punishing people in healthcare. Because, quoting Dr. Phil, “How’s that working out for ya?”

  11. This thread may be dead by now, but I just watched a replay of the Stanford OSU game on ESPN and I cannot excuse Stanford’s kicker for the loss. Other than the heroics of Justin Blackmun, Stanford dominated every aspect of that game. OSU was outplayed and outcoached and it came down to a couple of routine kicking plays. I could excuse an early miss due to nerves, but two misses at the end, one in regulation and one in OT are inexcusable. Every other member of the team did their job to put Stanford in a position to win, and the kicker choked. I feel for the guy, but he should find another sport. As a former Stanford athlete (wrestling), I understand the psychological pressure of college sports. I also understand that the Stanford community is not as rabid about sports as the rest of the nation (we actually care about academics), but we need to be honest. The kicker cost us the game and a 3rd place ranking in the natonal poles. I want to know how the Stanford coaching staff is addressing this deficit.

  12. Here is a 2015 documentary looking back at the missed kicks… the kicker’s reflections…

    He received, sadly, a bunch of really awful messages from people on social media… it’s just a game.

    “I didn’t go to a class for the first two weeks… I drank a lot… then I realized that wasn’t helping.”

  13. Mark,

    This is an absolutely great blog. Coming from someone who has lived the ups and downs of being a kicker at the division 1 level, it is refreshing to see someone with no known biases take on a view of kickers and the struggling athlete in general with such a wide lens.

    Coming out of High school a US Army All-American, I went into my first ever college game versus the University of Notre Dame without ever really experiencing a troubling performance. Long story short, I missed my only two field goal attempts and had my only PAT attempt blocked.

    From hecklers on Twitter, to receiving threats from people I never even talked to, it was clear I was receiving a large blame for the loss. Without a doubt I feel as though I should’ve made those kicks, which could have definitely changed the outcome of the game. But anyone who knows sports knows that usually a loss doesn’t stem from the performance of one singular player.

    This is a great comparison to lean and how it applies to the Health Care field. With all of that being said, no excuse for missing the kicks I did. Perfect snaps, perfect holds, and if they went in, my team would’ve been in a much better position to win the game. I’m sure the Stanford kicker feels the same way. Thanks for an article that definitely expresses how many athletes who have ever struggled have felt. I look forward to reading more of your work!


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