Thursday, September 15, 2005

But kickers

UPDATE 9/16: I just saw that this post is similar to some of the material in the Jets chapter of Pro Football Prospectus, the best pro football guide out there. The similarities are unintentional, but what I say still stands: The Jets were stupid.

When a team loses its opener by 20 points, when only a garbage-time TD prevents a shutout, when its starting quarterback fumbles six times, when its featured back averages less than 3 yards a carry, the fact that the kicker missed a field goal shouldn't merit much mention. Unless the team is the New York Jets.

As noted everywhere, then-Jets kicker Doug Brien missed the winning field goal -- twice -- in the closing minutes against the Steelers in last year's divisional playoffs. The team responded by throwing him off the metaphorical ledge, then going down to the metaphorical street and kicking his body under the metaphorical bus. The Jets then used their first pick in the draft -- a second-rounder -- on Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent. Sunday against the Chiefs, Nugent slipped as he planted his foot and bricked his first NFL field goal attempt.

Any other time a rookie kicker misses a 28-yard FG when his team's already down by 17, it maybe makes it into the "Notes" section of the game report in the next day's paper. (You know ... those little one-sentence items shirt-tailed onto the end of the main game story, usually under a clever heading like "Squib Kicks" or "Extra Points" or "Fair Catches" or "Torn ACLs.") But because of the Jets' hysterical reaction to Brien's breakdown, Nugent's blown figgie drew national notoriety.

Which is too bad, because Nugent doesn't deserve the opprobrium (look it up) that's bound to ensue. It isn't his fault that the Jets weren't satisfied merely with cutting Brien; they had to draft a kicker so it'd really sink in that he sucks. Nugent probably expected to get drafted -- he was the No. 1 kicker on the board -- but he also probably, and rightly, expected that he wouldn't go until the second day of the draft. Since 1982, only five kickers have been drafted in the second round or higher. Only three kickers were their team's first pick: Chip Lohmiller (Washington, Round 2, 1988), the absurd Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, Round 1, 2000), and Nugent.

So everything Nugent does is under the microscope. And with every miss, the pressure will build, until the Jets cut him. And they will cut him, because that's what happens to most kickers. They get cut, and they move on. Brien, for example. He was a third-round pick by the 49ers in 1994. They cut him the next year. He cycled through the Saints, Colts, Buccaneers and Vikings organizations before landing in a Jets uniform and exploding all over Heinz Field. Now he's with the Bears, and that won't be his last stop. Who's kicking now for the 49ers, the team that originally drafted Brien? Why, it's Joe Nedney, who was signed as a rookie free agent by the Packers in 1995. He wasn't in Green Bay long, and he put in time with the Raiders, the Dolphins, the Cardinals, the Raiders again, the Broncos, the Panthers and the Titans before signing with San Francisco. For every team like Detroit, which has had Jason Hanson kicking since the Lions drafted him in 1992, there is a team like the Vikings, who in the same period have trotted out Fuad Reveiz, Scott Sisson, Greg Davis, Eddie Murray, Gary Anderson, Hayden Epstein, Aaron Elling, Morten Anderson and Paul Edinger.

Nugent's grim welcome to the NFL came the same weekend that two of the league's PK stalwarts kicked themselves in the teeth. David Akers went 1-for-3 on field goals in a game the Eagles lost by four points. (Those two missed FGs, by the way, were not the "difference in the game." E-mail me if you want an explanation.) Meanwhile, Matt Stover, who is in his 15th year with the Browns-cum-Ravens, honked all three of his field goal attempts. Here's what their coaches said:

"David is so consistent, he will work through this. He came back and hit one after missing two, and I am not worried about David."
-- Eagles coach Andy Reid

"Sometimes a kicker just doesn't have it."
-- Ravens coach Brian Billick

Akers wasn't a high draft choice. He wasn't drafted at all. The Panthers signed him in 1997, and he later went to the Falcons; the Eagles got him cheap as a free agent in '99. Stover was a comparative draft darling: the Giants took him in the 12th round in 1990, as the third-to-last player chosen. The 12th round doesn't exist anymore. Nor do Rounds 8-11.

Sure, Billick and Reid can afford to be sanguine about their kickers' struggles. After all, Stover was critical in getting the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2000, and Akers has been a vital cog in the Eagles' run of excellence. But are the coaches willing to cut them a little slack because they usually deliver, or do they usually deliver because the coaches are willing to cut them a little slack?

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