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Ron Rivera continues to support kicker Dustin Hopkins for good reasons

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Dustin Hopkins missed both of his field goal attempts in the Football Team’s first preseason game. Washington fans, remembering a lot of costly misses by Hopkins from last season, took to Twitter and other social media in a bit of a panic. Reporters were quick to question head coach Ron Rivera about Hopkins’ status at the post-game press conference.

Coach Ron Rivera was unflappable in his support for Dustin Hopkins, saying that “there’s not a concern” with the two misses. Rivera elaborated, saying that the special teams kicking unit is a new operation with the integration of rookie long snapper Cameron Cheeseman, and that the trio — long snapper, holder, kicker — need to continue to work together to perfect the timing of the snap-to-kick functions.

Cheeseman was drafted in the 6th round to replace Nick Sundberg, who, prior to the expiration of his contract at the end of the 2020 season, was Washington’s longest-tenured player, having been with the team since 2010. Washington moved on from the 34-year-old Sundberg who had surgery in February to repair torn triceps, and whose 2018 season was cut short due to recurring back pain that was also resolved with surgery.

It seems reasonable that the group might need more than the several practices that they’ve had together to match the efficiency and reliability of the Sundberg-Way-Hopkins trio that had been together as a group since Hopkins first signed with the Redskins in September 2015 to replace Kai Forbath.

While the argument that Rivera put forward — that is, that Cheeseman is a new component in a precision operation that needs continued refinement — may seem reasonable on the face of it, many fans, writers, bloggers and podcasters take exception, pointing to Hopkins performance in 2020, when he still had Sundberg around, as evidence.

Consider this argument from KS4GM:

Unfortunately, 2020 was Hopkins’ worst season kicking to date, with his field goal percentage dropping 79.4%, placing him at 22nd in the league. His extra point percentage was a miserable 93.8%, as he also missed two extra points last season.

And then there’s this from DC Sports King:

There is a new component to the kicking game. Longtime long snapper Nick Sundberg is gone and rookie Camaron Cheeseman is in. On the second miss, it appeared the snap was high. While holder/punter Tress Way was able to get the ball down, Hopkins seemed to hesitate before kicking the ball....

Even if so, Hopkins has been in a concerning trend. Maybe it’s just time to bring in another kicker to challenge and get the best from Hopkins?

Both writers refer to the 2020 season as being a bad one, and each suggests in his article that the two misses against the Patriots are the continuation of a trend. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Early in the 2020 season, Hopkins suffered from a groin strain, and it certainly affected his accuracy. A wire report from 18 November (Week 11) of the 2020 season said, “ Hopkins (groin) didn’t practice Wednesday, John Keim of ESPN NFL Nation reports. Hopkins has been playing through the groin injury in recent weeks.”

During this stretch that he tried to play through the injury, Hopkins did no perform well, making less than 69% of his field goal attempts, with a percentage of just 62.5% on attempts of 40-49 yards.

But it was an entirely different story once Hopkins got healthy again. From Week 12 through the wildcard playoff weekend, Hopkins attempted 16 field goals and made 15 of them, for a 93.75% accuracy rate. During those seven games, he hit 100% of his attempts between 40-49 yards.

The relevant “trend” for Hopkins is the final 7 games when he was healthy, not the middle of the season when he was struggling with a nagging injury.

Seen in this light, Ron Rivera’s confidence in his placekicker is easily understood. Hopkins was among the league’s best field goal kickers down the stretch last year.

On top of this, Hopkins has consistently been among the league’s most effective on kickoffs over his career, and has been trending up. Pro Football Focus ranked Hopkins as the 6th best in the NFL on kickoffs in 2020, with a rating of 79.5. He had the 6th highest number of touchbacks and the 5th lowest yards per return on returned kicks.

All in all, Hopkins has been a fairly consistent kicker relative to his contemporaries. While he undoubtedly had a bad stretch of games in 2020, his struggles were a result of a nagging injury, and reflect a coaching decision to let him play hurt rather than reflecting a lack of ability on Hopkins part — which he proved in his final 7 games by hitting on nearly 94% of his attempts, missing just single kick in Week 14, which was over 50 yards.

Meanwhile, his ability to boom kickoffs out of the end zone, combined with average returns of just 18.1 yards on the rare returned kickoff, make Hopkins extremely valuable (similar to his ‘partner’, punter Tress Way) in winning the field position battle in games. It’s easy to see why Ron Rivera is ready to stand by Hopkins in the face of two misses in a preseason game.

Undoubtedly, Cheeseman, Way and Hopkins need to get it all figured out before the start of the regular season or Ron Rivera might be forced to look at other kickers or long snappers, but for now, the message from Ron Rivera seems to be that patience will be rewarded, and that Dustin Hopkins will extend the trend of success (93.8%) he was having when he was healthy during the final 7 games of his 2020 campaign.