- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Place-kickers, for approximately six days, 23 hours and 59 minutes each week, are an underappreciated group.
They wander the practice field, unconsciously turning over a ball in their hands, while the real work is getting done in crunching seven-on-seven drills. When the game finally arrives, kickers are on the sideline for the vast majority of the typical game's 125 plays, in which 22 mostly physically superior players are engaged in the bruising business of football.
Then, with a few seconds left on the clock, the little kicker saunters onto the field and wins the game -- or loses it.
Non-kickers, generally speaking, have little regard for kickers. The Baltimore Ravens are an exception. At the end of every Friday's practice, they invite a guest kicker to stand in for place-kicker Matt Stover. Coach Brian Billick brought the tradition to Baltimore in 1999, borrowing the idea from Vikings special teams coordinator Gary Zauner.
"I love it," Stover said. "You line up for a 20-yard field goal and say, 'Aw, this is a chip shot.' But when you have to go out there and there is maybe 100 bucks on the line -- I hope that's not a salary-cap issue -- they have to try to perform that kick.
"There is no snap. There is no rush. There is nothing. They have got all the time in the world to line up and try to kick it through -- and more times than not, they miss it.
"If you're lining up a 52-yard, game-winning kick, they look at you and go, 'Man, I am glad I'm not Matt Stover today.' That is when you gain the respect from your fellow teammates."
Kickers have gained a large measure of respect this frenetic NFL season. Witness the headlines of the past five weeks:
• Week 6: Arizona's Neil Rackers, who set an NFL record last season by connecting on 40 of 42 field goals, misses a 41-yard field goal with 53 seconds left and the Cardinals -- who once led by 20 points -- lose 24-23 to the Chicago Bears. Seattle's Josh Brown and the Saints' John Carney kick winning field goals as time expires.
• Week 7: Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant (more about him later) kicks the third-longest field goal in NFL history, a 62-yarder, to send the Eagles down to defeet for the second straight week. The Falcons' Morten Andersen, who had missed a 52-yard attempt in regulation, makes a 32-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 41-38 overtime victory over the Steelers.
• Week 8: In a battle of arguably the best two teams in the AFC, Adam Vinatieri's 37-yard field goal with two seconds left gives the Colts a 34-31 victory over the Broncos.
• Week 9: Washington's Nick Novak misses a 49-yard field goal with 31 seconds left. The Cowboys' Mike Vanderjagt -- the most accurate kicker in league history -- follows with a 35-yard attempt (with six seconds left) that is blocked. Then, incredibly, a Cowboys penalty after the block gives Washington one more chance, and Novak wins the game 22-19 with a 47-yard field goal that slides just inside the right upright.
• Week 10: Seattle's Brown calmly kicks a 38-yard field goal with nine seconds left to beat St. Louis 24-22. It is Brown's second winning kick to beat the Rams in less than a month.
ESPN recently convened a quorum of seven place-kickers to discuss how they deal with the stress of their jobs. Stover, the Giants' Jay Feely, Philadelphia's David Akers, Denver's Jason Elam, Vinatieri, Bryant and Andersen were candid in talking about their peculiar craft.
Oh, the pressure, the pressure ...
Pressure, the Falcons' Andersen insists, occurs only when the task at hand is more difficult than your skill.
Clearly, words to live by.
"Mental toughness is extremely important," he said. "You've got to have coping skills because we're going to be in situations that are distasteful."
"You've got nothing to do all week, then on Sunday it ends up being pure chaos for 30 seconds. If you don't look forward to it, then you shouldn't be in the league."
Matt Stover, Ravens kicker
One of those coping mechanisms, apparently, is denial. In an interview that consumed more than 20 minutes, Andersen could bring himself to use the word "miss" only once. Distasteful, indeed.
"You've got nothing to do all week," the Ravens' Stover said. "Then on Sunday it ends up being pure chaos for 30 seconds. If you don't look forward to it, then you shouldn't be in the league."
Akers of the Eagles summed it up this way: "You're kind of the hero or the goat, and rightfully so -- or not."
Imagine delivering parcels, closing a sales deal or teaching a class of seventh-graders with 70,000 watching intently over your shoulder.
"I can probably go out and kick 30 in a row," said Denver's Elam, who in 1998 tied Tom Dempsey's 28-year-old record with a 63-yard field goal, "and [if I] miss one, people will be upset.
"Pressure is a perception, not a reality. It's only what you allow to be put on yourself."
Pressure, you want pressure? Last year in Week 14 at Philadelphia, the Giants' Feely was lining up the potential winning field goal in overtime when the Eagles called a timeout.
The big screen at Lincoln Financial Field featured some lowlights from two weeks previous: One, two, three missed field goals at Seattle by Feely that cost the Giants a victory against the Seahawks.
Feely continued with his pre-visualization exercises and claimed he never looked up. What did he think of that astute operator's sense of timing?
"I might not call him astute," Feely said, laughing. "I might call him a different 'A' word.
"Why not put somebody's ex-wife up there, or find out if someone is having an affair and put their girlfriend up there? You could have an influence on someone's performance because they are worried about what their wife is seeing up on the JumboTron."
Yes, Feely made the kick.
"A lot of guys can kick a 45-yard field goal, but not a lot of guys can do it under the pressure of a game-winning situation," Feely said. "Pressure to me is coming home and answering to my wife why I missed that kick."
Although it doesn't have the constant, wearing stress of, say, an air traffic controller's job, the place-kicker's 40-hour workweek usually comes down to a few kicks that require only seconds to execute. That's a lot of concentrated pressure
"The way I look at a kicker is that we are the sniper. We are the guy that sits out there in the brush for three, four days waiting for his opportunity -- to kick the field goal or take out the general or whatever it takes. He may have five seconds to pull that trigger. That's exactly the way I look at my job."
Matt Stover, Ravens kicker
Not surprisingly, kickers drew comparisons to similarly difficult jobs.
"A relief pitcher in baseball," Akers said. "They've got to come in and make a great play. Monday through Saturday, it's a great time because you're not out banging guys around. But Sunday, when it comes down to crunch time, it seems like the people that wanted your job during the week kind of go to the wayside."
Said Feely, "A closer in baseball -- that's probably the best equivalent in sports. They haven't been intimately involved in the process throughout the game, and now the game is going to rest in their hands.
"Another job might be working down on the board of trade, operating in the stock market. The pressure of all this money and having to make trades and come through in the clutch, make quick decisions that have gigantic consequences to them."
Said Stover: "The way I look at a kicker is that we are the sniper. We are the guy that sits out there in the brush for three, four days waiting for his opportunity -- to kick the field goal or take out the general or whatever it takes.
"He may have five seconds to pull that trigger. That's exactly the way I look at my job."
The Danish king
Stover had a conversation with Andersen this past summer. And although Andersen never said anything definitive, Stover got the vague impression the veteran "knew something" about a comeback at the dreadfully advanced age of 46.
What Andersen knew and Stover didn't was that Andersen never stopped kicking after he was released by the Vikings in 2005. He would go to a park near his Atlanta home and kick field goals wearing shoulder pads from his days with the Saints, his Giants pants, his Pro Bowl jersey and his Vikings helmet.
"I'm running out on the field going, 'Here comes No. 7 for the NFC, the Giants, the Vikings, the Saints, whatever,'" Andersen said. "It was just kind of comical in a way. Funny, sad, I don't know.
"I just kind of matter-of-factly told [Stover] I was trying to get back on the field, and there was this sort of silence on the other end of the phone. I don't know what he thought of it, but I knew I could."
And so he did. The Falcons signed him after the season started, and the native of Denmark is back in the NFL, kicking his way into history.
No one -- not even ageless George Blanda -- has played in more NFL games than Andersen, who has logged 360 games. Even if he achieves only modest production in the last seven games of this season, Andersen would eclipse Gary Anderson's all-time field goal (538) and point (2,434) totals.
After sitting out in 2005, Andersen is in his 24th season. Twelve of his Falcons teammates were born after 1982, the year he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round out of Michigan State.
"My holder, Matt Schaub, I would have been 21 when he was born. I could be his dad, I suppose," Andersen said. "I know it sounds crazy, but my goal -- as stated many years -- was to play until I'm 50.
"And that goal still stands."
Chill, baby, chill
Somewhere in the NFL coaching manual, there is this sentence: When the opposing place-kicker lines up the winning kick, freeze him with a timeout. The reasoning? During that extra time, the theory goes, the enormity of his task will overwhelm him.
"I kind of like it when teams call timeout. It gives me time to go out there, collect my thoughts, relax, see what the wind is doing, make sure I have a good plant area."
Jason Elam, Broncos kicker
Pure fiction, say the league's best kickers.
"I kind of like it when teams call timeout," the Broncos' Elam said. "It gives me time to go out there, collect my thoughts, relax, see what the wind is doing, make sure I have a good plant area.
"You don't have that second clock winding down -- so keep icing me."
Said Vinatieri, "I don't know if it makes a difference one way or another. Sometimes, honestly, I think it may actually help. If the field conditions are bad, if it's snowing, sometimes it might give you more time to clean off the field or figure out what the winds are doing.
"If you clear your mind and refocus in after the timeout, it shouldn't make much of a difference."
Andersen, in fact, has always said publicly that calling a timeout is a mistake.
"I keep telling them," he said, "and they keep calling timeout. To me, it's an advantage because it gives me extra time to find my target, to set up and get relaxed. I chuckle to myself because I know that they just helped me.
"I don't know who invented that decision, that notion that, 'If it's a game-winning field goal, we have to call a timeout.' But some things in the NFL are very hard to change."
The accidental hero
He has played for four teams in six seasons. Going into the Week 7 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Bryant had missed three of four kicks from 40 yards and beyond and his longest successful kick was 28 yards.
Suddenly, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden was asking Bryant to win the game with four seconds left by making a staggering 62-yard field goal, 1 yard shy of the NFL record and 12 yards farther than any kick he had made.
Akers, Bryant's counterpart on the Eagles' sideline, told his teammates Bryant had a shot.
"In pregame, I was hitting 60-yarders, before the wind even picked up," Akers said. "It was really hot out there, so the ball is going to fly. I looked over and said to some of the guys, 'He's got to get it between the poles, but he's going to get it there.'"
The Bucs' holder, punter Josh Bidwell, told Bryant, "No matter what happens with this kick, know that you did your best. Just swing as hard as you can and whatever happens, happens."
"I just stayed smooth with my approach, and I just swung through the ball," Bryant said. "I didn't look at it as that much pressure. If we went outside and kicked 20 balls from the 25-yard line, no matter what happens, you've got to make that kick 20 times. If we go out and line up that ball from 62 yards, under perfect conditions, if you kick 20 balls and you make that once, it would be a good accomplishment."
It was, it turned out, a great accomplishment.
"The main thing that went through my mind?" Bryant said. "Survival. A lot of guys were on top of me, and [the pile] was getting heavier and heavier. It was a fun experience that I may never get to live through again."
A miss is as good as ...
These days, good place-kickers usually make at least 75 percent of their field goal attempts.
Among the leaders in field goals made, the Bears' Robbie Gould is currently 23-for-23, St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins is 23-for-26 (.885), the Chargers' Nate Kaeding is 17-for-19 (.895) and Stover is 16-for-16. Even Bryant, who is at the bottom of the list, is 7-for-10 (.700).
Even with those terrific numbers, there are misses to deal with. How do kickers recover from the disappointment, especially with all the free time on their hands?
"A real short memory," Stover said, laughing. "That simple. You tend to forget what is past and look forward to the next kick."
Said Akers, "It's kind of like a cornerback when they go out and get burned -- yet it's still an All-Pro corner. When they get back on the line, they [believe they] can intercept the ball and break up the play instead of thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I got burned on the last play, what's going to happen now?'"
Andersen, not surprisingly, has a different approach.
"I don't call it short-term memory," he said. "I don't want to forget about it, I want to learn from it. I acknowledge that it's there, but I don't want to give it any more credence than a made kick."
He is the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the NFL.
Oh sure, Andersen has the record for winning kicks (in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime), but those 22 winners were accrued in 23 seasons and counting. Vinatieri has 19 -- in fewer than 11 seasons.
His secret? It's ludicrously simple.
"You try and take every kick exactly the same, no matter if it's the beginning or the last minute," Vinatieri said. "It's the same kick -- if you can convince yourself of that."
Vinatieri, apparently, is very convincing.
He is the only man to successfully kick field goals in three Super Bowls. He hit the winner in Super Bowl XXXVI, a 40-yarder as time expired, to give the Patriots a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams. It was the first time a Super Bowl ended on the last play. Two years later in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vinatieri kicked the winning 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining as New England prevailed over Carolina 32-29. Perhaps more memorable than either of those was the kick that helped the Patriots get to that first Super Bowl. It was a 45-yard field goal in five inches of swirling snow and gusting wind that lifted the Patriots into overtime against the Raiders. Vinatieri also had the game winner in overtime, a 23-yarder for a 16-13 win in the divisional playoffs.
"I think the most important asset to kicking is being mentally headstrong," Vinatieri said. "Being able to handle the pressure or, maybe even better than that, clear your head. There are younger guys out there who can really kick the ball well, so you have to do it when it counts."
The Colts, who let Mike Vanderjagt go in the offseason, signed Vinatieri to a rich contract that featured a signing bonus of $3.5 million. Vinatieri is 17-for-19, his only misses coming against his old team in Week 9. Still, the Colts are the only undefeated team left in the NFL, and you get the idea that with an important game on the line, it won't be Vinatieri who lets them down.
"You've got to trust your steps, trust your guys that are on the field with you, and when the ball is on the ground, you've got to do that every single time," Vinatieri said. "Every kicker that's in this league has kicked a million or so balls.
"You just have that swing; you know what you have to do, and you go out there and do it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.