Kicking in the NFL Is Really '3 Seconds of Hell'

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 28, 2016

Oct 23, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro (7) looks on after missing a field goal in overtime against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There's a question we could ask the average football fan that will often get an immediate response: What's the one thing you could do at even a decent or passable level right now on an NFL field?

The answer usually isn't throwing a quick short pass. There are massive pass-rushing men ready to not-so gently place you back in a fifth-row seat, your natural habitat.

The answer also isn't being on the other end of a pass. Sure, we've all done that at the beach when the only defense is a seagull. But to catch a pass you need to be able to get open and then brace for a throttling.

The most common answer is something that only happens a few times every game. When it does, the searing spotlight turns to one man and his noble, knee-jittering quest to put a ball through two uprights.

"If you see Tom Brady throw an incompletion or an interception, most people sitting in the stands don't think, 'Oh, well give me the ball, I can make that throw,'" Ryan Longwell, who spent much of his career kicking in the swirling Lambeau Field winds, told Bleacher Report. "But when anybody misses a 35-yarder, everybody sitting at home and in the stands thinks, 'I can make that.'"

Forget the distance for a second, though, and focus on the moment instead. Right or wrong, the fate of a game can come down to a kicker's foot. Much like the golf swing, the mechanics of kicking are so intricate that the slightest misstep can have crushing consequences.

That is how the worst-case scenario became reality in an overtime period filled with kicking bloopers during the Week 7 Sunday Night Football game. The Seahawks' Stephen Hauschka and Cardinals' Chandler Catanzaro each missed potential game-winning field goals from distances that are usually routine. First, Catanzaro's 24-yard attempt boinked off the upright, and then Hauschka shanked his 28-yarder into another area code located somewhere far to the left.

Immediately there was confusion, and then contempt. The popular "you had one job!" social media scream echoed throughout the internet and on postgame panels.

There were calls for both to be pink-slipped, even though Hauschka's poor evening will only register as a blip in his stellar career kicking through wildly unpredictable Seattle weather conditions. He's still the fourth-most accurate kicker of all time, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

But that can become a memory fast. Your existence as a kicker is tied to every leg swing during pressure-loaded moments. And unlike the quarterback who throws an interception or the linebacker who misses a tackle, there's no quick opportunity to forget and move on. The kicker who whiffs in that lonely moment may not step onto the field again for a few quarters. Or worse, an entire week.

Hauschka and Catanzaro are navigating that mental minefield now as they try to file away their night of sprayed footballs. It's a rock-bottom path nearly every kicker has stumbled through at some point.

How do you deal with the inevitable failure at an individual position in a team game? And how do you stay mentally sharp after those dark hours?

I peered into the sometimes tortured soul of the kicker by asking those questions and more when speaking to Longwell, John Carney and Jay Feely. They all rank among the top 25 in kicking accuracy, and they have a combined 52 years of NFL kicking experience between them.

The first step is avoiding failure, of course, and there are different approaches for managing the fragile kicking mind.

       

Preparing for the moment

Everything about being a kicker sounds completely and utterly terrifying before the game even begins. The kicker's entire week comes down to only a few chances to potentially have a significant impact. Or maybe just one.

That's why kickers can be a little, well, different, especially in how they carry themselves as the offense is driving down the field and they could be called upon.

"I get different answers from every guy," said Feely, who hit 82.6 percent of his field-goal attempts during his 14-year career and is now a kicking analyst on Thursday Night Football. His assessment of what he saw at the end of Sunday night's game was, in a word, blunt.

"Some guys don't want to talk to anybody," he added. "They say, 'I want my mind totally blank and I don't want to think about anything.'

"There are guys I've talked to who say they sing when they go out there to kick. They have a certain song they sing in their head and that gets them relaxed and into the moment. Other guys have done a lot of work with sports psychologists and they have a routine they go through," Feely explained. "It starts when the ball crosses the 50-yard line. They go through it every time trying to create the exact same situation so their mind doesn't wander in those moments."

Trying to pick which kickers sing songs to themselves every attempt is a fun game for another time (Adam Vinatieri definitely hums "Wonderwall," right?). Just know that kicking takes the "hey, whatever works" mentality to its extreme.

The distance doesn't change the mental weight with the game's outcome tied to your foot, and only your foot. The greatest difficulty is not allowing your mind to enter warp speed, which then makes your body do the same.

"For me, the way you handle pressure is knowing how your body is going to feel and react," Longwell said. "You need to put things in place that kind of prevent it from doing what it naturally wants to do. The body naturally wants to speed up under pressure. It's just natural, and the best of the best are able to stay in rhythm and slow everything down so they can hit their best ball full well knowing their legs may feel like jello."

Some kickers like Longwell use mental gymnastics to remove themselves from the game situation. A sort of mind trick goes on to convince the brain that what's happening right nowthe buzzing crowd, the close or tied scoreboard and the nearly expired clockisn't real.

Instead, the kicker is only present physically. Mentally, what comes next is a repeatable routine and nothing more.

"What you try to do is take yourself out of the situation," said Longwell, who now coaches at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "It's not about the situation, and instead it's about the rhythm and routine. Which hopefully is the same routine you had on Wednesday in practice, and the same one you had during pregame warm-ups and on the first-quarter field goal. Then you can do it all again easily in the fourth quarter.

"It doesn't matter whether the kick is in practice, in the first quarter from 55 yards or with the game on the line from 28 yards. It's always the same rhythm so it doesn't matter what the situation is," Longwell said.

Removing yourself mentally from pressure is one approach. But Carney had a different mind game.

He immersed himself deeply in those game-deciding moments. He did it long before Sunday, and during a time when no one else knew a game was on the line. That's because there was no game happening.

Most accurate kickers of all time
RankKicker% of FG attempts made
1Dan Bailey90.1
2Justin Tucker89.2
3Stephen Gostkowski86.9
4Stephen Hauschka86.7
5Mike Vanderjagt86.5
19Ryan Longwell83.2
21Jay Feely82.6
22John Carney82.4
Source: Pro Football Reference

"During the course of the week I mentally predicted the game will come down to an important field-goal attempt in the last minutes," he said. "Mentally and visually you're looking to that situation as one that will arise."

As he continued to describe an approach that had him inviting pressure by bathing in it on the practice field, Carney unintentionally described an imaginary moment from every backyard ever.

Kids everywhere have pretended to be, say, Aaron Rodgers while dropping back with the seconds ticking down. Then they complete a game-winning pass to a pile of leaves. In a way Carney did that every week on the practice field too. But for him the make-believe stakes were so much higher, as the imaginary could later become reality.

"You say to yourself in practice, 'This is a game-winner, and this next attempt I have to put it through to get our team to overtime, or win the game.' Then when it comes to the game and you're in that moment, you're not surprised by it. You expected it, and you're looking forward to it because that's what your preparation was leading up to."

Kicking anxiety is either managed by embracing it or forgetting about it entirely. Those are also the choices when faced with the inevitable failure that Hauschka and Catanzaro just ran headlong into.

       

Getting past the painful moments

It was bad enough when Feely, then with the New York Giants, missed three game-winning attempts in 2005 against the Seahawks. The first came in the final seconds from 40 yards away with the game tied. Then the next two wayward kicks were from 54 and 45 yards in overtime.

Picture your worst day at work. Then imagine having to see it mocked with Dane Cook as your stand-in.

Feely became a punch line for one week when Saturday Night Live did a sketch called "The Long Ride Home: The Jay Feely Story." He didn't need the lampooning to have those misses forever etched in his mind. He recalls them well, just like all of his 75 career misses (playoffs included).

"I can think about every one of my misses throughout my entire career right now," he said. "I can walk you through and list them all, and especially the ones that were critical."

Even if those misses still loom large in his apparently vast kicking memory bank, Feely now looks back on his career lowlights as essential character-building opportunities.

"I had to fail as bad as I could fail before I was able to move past it," he continued. "You go through those pressure-packed moments when you know your career could end if you don't perform. Then you come through and you perform, and you realize you don't have to fear failure nearly as much as you did."

The mistakes and mishit kicks can come at the most unfortunate times. Even when the difficulty level is low, as it was for Hauschka and Catanzaro. Or as it's been for the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski, who had converted 523 straight extra-point attempts until the AFC Championship Game in January.

Now, in 2016, the third-most accurate kicker ever has missed three more field-goal attempts and two more PATs.

"I don't really talk about reasons why I make or miss a kick," Gostkowski told reporters following the Patriots' Week 7 win that featured one of his missed point-after attempts (h/t NFL.com's Nick Shook). "No one knows, nor cares to understand. I stink right now. That's just the bottom line."

Is Gostkowski dealing with a case of the yips?

Any golfer who's missed a few short putts knows the crippling mental grip of the yips well. Former New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch had perhaps the most famous battle with the yips when he suddenly couldn't throw to first base. More recently, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester's possible fight with the yips has kept him from throwing to first base even during the most painfully obvious situations.

So the yips definitely are a thing for kickers, right?

"Absolutely," Carney said. "The distractions become louder and the consequences become greater. If you start missing a good number of kicks, they'll be trying out new kickers and you risk losing your job."

The slope from being a trusted source of three points to fighting off unemployment is a slippery one. Many established kickers have slid away into oblivion, never to be heard from again.

Halting the tumble can mean returning to your roots and remembering the body of quality work you've put together. The fundamental form that's pushed a kicker's ascent shouldn't go anywhere. It should remain the same regardless of each result.

Achieving that sense of levelheadedness is a matter of taking the long view.

"Everything is always the same whether you made or missed the previous kick," Longwell said. "There should be no pressure on the 11th kick if you made the previous 10, just like there should be no pressure on the 11th kick if you missed the previous two after making those first eight."

The kicker may have to fool himself because the swing of his leg is a delicate process. But any golf-swing comparisons always end at the same place: the few seconds every game that either elevate the kicker or make sure he becomes a household name in the worst way.

         

The mental fight of many moments and the "three seconds of hell"

We assume that if a kicker is consistently accurate, the looming anxiety associated with the position has been mastered and mental demons have been put to bed.

Sometimes that assumption might be true if, as Carney did, the kicker in question is a veteran who has learned to always maintain a sense of calm.

"I used to go into training camp with the Saints and when we had our team physicals I would pride myself on what my resting heart rate was," he said. "I'd compare myself to teammates, and especially the other specialists. I thought I was doing pretty well one year when my resting heart rate was around 49 or 48. I felt pretty good about myself until I saw what Drew Brees' was. It was 39, and I just said, 'Holy smokes, Drew, does your heart rate go up to like 45 when you get nervous?'"

Other times, even the most pinpoint kickers are haunted by the job.

"I remember talking to Matt Stover (18th all-time in accuracy), and he used to call it the three seconds of hell when he had to kick, and he's one of the best kickers ever," Feely said.

Stephen Hauschka missed two regular-season field goals in 2015. He's already matched that total in 2016.
Stephen Hauschka missed two regular-season field goals in 2015. He's already matched that total in 2016.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Kickers step into a mental inferno every time they're on the field. They know that and signed up for it. But even veterans like Gostkowski and Hauschka get torched now and then.

What happens next in that flame dance is up to them. Usually success going forward means compartmentalizing and making sure the object in the mirror gets smaller. They need to avoid the beginning of a rolling mental snowball.

"The worst thing that can happen is when things snowball," Longwell said. "You mishit one and then come out and swing harder, which gets you out of your normal rhythm and routine. You see that a lot more with young guys. They miss a few, and then their solution is to swing harder. What that does is take you further and further away from your natural mechanics."

Catanzaro is trying to outrun a building snowball now after two misses Sunday, one of which was blocked, and three overall in 2016.

Meanwhile, Hauschka has logged misses in two straight games and had a blocked extra-point attempt. We've seen a similar spiral from the Vikings' Blair Walsh, who missed a field goal that would have pushed his team past the Seahawks in the playoffs last January. Now he's missed five more times over just six games in 2016, including two extra points.

They're all wandering through those mental hot coals and trying to find themselves. They're grasping for some inner peace while not changing anything physically, because the mind and foot can't be at war.

And they're doing it at the most unique and unforgiving position in sports.

"Not everyone can see the receiver not quite running the right route or the quarterback missing the throw just a little bit," Longwell said. "But everyone can see if the ball doesn't go through the pipes at the end of the field.

"There's no C grade in kicking. It's either an A or an F. It's pass/fail, and there's nothing like it."

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