What's wrong with Nick Folk?

What once was perceived as a strength for the Cowboys — and it was believed that would be the case for a decade or more — now has become a nail-biting test in anxiety management.

After emerging as a rising star in his first two NFL seasons, Nick Folk is officially struggling. After connecting on 84 percent of his field goals (26 of 31) as a rookie in 2007, and 91 percent (20 of 22) last year, Folk has tumbled to just 65 percent (17 of 26) this season. He has missed at least one field goal in the last five games, including a 41-yarder Sunday in the Cowboys' home loss against San Diego. He has been particularly erratic on kicks between 40 and 49 yards, hitting just 4 of 11 through 13 games (although, to be fair, he has hit one of two from 50 or more yards).

In an uncharacteristic move, head coach Wade Phillips acknowledged when meeting the press after the game that the team would "consider all options" regarding the kicking game. Translation: could Dallas cut Folk?

Sure, it's possible, but the options are limited. Thunderfooted rookie David Buehler could take over placekicking duties, in addition to his job as the team's kickoff specialist. Former Dallas fill-in Shaun Suisham is looking for work after getting cut by Washington … in large part because of two missed field goals in Dallas that allowed the Cowboys to sneak out with a narrow victory, and because of a shanked 23-yarder in the waning minutes of last week's game that would have iced a Redskin victory over still-unbeaten New Orleans (maybe that wouldn't be a bad choice, as Suisham surely would like another shot at the Saints … who host the Cowboys Saturday in the Superdome). Or maybe 39-year-old Jason Elam, who was cut earlier this season after connecting on 12 of 19 field goals.

Or how about this: has anyone heard anything lately from Mike Vanderjagt?

The fact is Dallas should not cut Folk, or at least not yet, and doing so would come with a cost; Folk is in the third season of a four-year contract that he signed in 2007. If the Cowboys sent him packing, they would be responsible for a pro-rated remainder of his 2009 salary of $460,000. The final year on his deal calls for Folk to earn $550,000 next year.

The Cowboys traditionally don't like to spend a lot on kickers. For years, they shuttled in guys like Lin Elliott and Richie Cunningham and Billy Cundiff — low-cost guys who kept their jobs as long as they were successful, and were jettisoned when they started to falter. Then owner Jerry Jones broke with tradition by signing Vanderjagt to a lucrative contract … only to watch the mercurial Venderjagt alienate teammates and coaches and ultimately his way out of town.

Folk has the attributes teams want in their kickers: a very powerful leg that he has shown can be very accurate, and a short memory. Kickers are a little like relief pitchers who have to be able to forget a home run and strike out the next batter; kickers have to be able to forget the field goal they shanked from short range and return to the field with the proverbial ice in their veins and have confidence they can connect on a game-winner.

Folk is a very gifted kicker, and he is without question confident in his physical ability. But he chose not to talk to the media after Sunday's game, knowing the questions he'd face about his recent shotgun accuracy. He's young, he knows he's being watched (by fans, media, Phillips and most importantly, Jones). That he didn't want to stand and face the music immediately after missing a field goal in a three-point loss is understandable.

Nobody needs to tell Folk where he stands. He is talented, but he also is intelligent and realistic. Dallas has another kicker on its roster, and if the coaches don't want to turn the placekicking duties over to Buehler, they could replace Folk with one of the retreads looking for work.

He is a valuable asset, and if he gets turned loose, he will show up on another NFL roster by training camp, if not before the end of this season. But he doesn't want that any more than management wants to cut him. Tony Romo replaced Mat McBriar as the holder, further reducing the number of variables in the kicking equation. Folk has to produce — consistently — or his future just might be decided for him.

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