When the Detroit Lions take the field at TCF Bank Stadium, they will have Matt Prater doing their kicking. Prater, who was signed on Tuesday, will be the third kicker the Lions have used in six games – an NFL record for non-injury related kicker turnover.
In Detroit, kicking has been a long-term art form. For 21 years, Jason Hanson was the kicker for the Lions. After one nondescript season with another aging veteran (David Akers), Detroit looked for another long-term solution in seventh-round rookie Nate Freese. That plan got scuttled in a hurry.
In three games, Freese missed four of seven field goals, including 3 of 4 in his final two games. He didn’t make a single attempt of beyond 30 yards and the team felt it had no option but to let him go. However, the replacement didn’t get the job done either.
Alex Henery had been the kicker for the Eagles, but lost that job in the preseason. With Henery waiting to get a call from a team in need, the Lions turned out to be that team. Freese was released and Henery was hired, but his Lions career lasted just two games. He missed 4 of 5 field goals, including all three in last Sunday’s loss to Buffalo and was sent packing – making Prater the third kicker in just over a month in Detroit.
The struggles of kickers are something that is rarely tolerated and Vikings kicker Blair Walsh empathizes with them. Theirs is the smallest fraternity in the NFL – teams only carry one kicker – and Walsh felt bad for both of them because he knows how fragile job security can be for a kicker in the NFL.
“I thought the guy they cut initially – Freese – was going to be a good NFL kicker and he may still be,” Walsh said. “He’s got a lot of talent coming out of college and in the first couple of games just couldn’t put it together. The tough thing is that all it takes is a couple of bad kicks and you can be out of the league. I know they’ve been untimely misses, so that doesn’t help. But both him and Henery have the talent to play in the league, so I’m hoping they get back in the league.”
One of the reasons Walsh could feel for Freese and Henery was that he felt much that same pressure two years ago when he became the Vikings kicker. He was replacing one of the most accurate kickers in the league, Ryan Longwell, and, as much as he tried to block it out of his mind, he knew that the expectation bar had been raised high and he needed to come through or he could have faced a similar fate. He has built up some equity since then – he could survive a rough patch without fear of being cut – but there is always the stigma of being a kicker who misses field goals that follows them like a dark cloud.
“You try not to put pressure on yourself, but you’re definitely aware of the situation,” Walsh said. “You can’t go out there and blindly say that I can miss a couple and I’ll still be OK. That’s not always the situation. You have to go out there and embrace each situation you’re put in. I know that sounds strange to do, but you can’t fool yourself into thinking they’re no pressure situations. There are jobs on the line and games and points. You have to embrace it and just perform.”
Unlike other players who can have a key missed tackle, a fumble or an interception, the pressure on a kicker is intense and nothing short of perfection is expected. Even if it means slamming home a 55-yard field goal, any time a coach sends a kicker out on the field on third down, it is done so with the expectation of three points.
Their uniforms rarely get dirty. They are often isolated away from the rest of the players. But few have as much pressure to be perfect on every play as a kicker.
“We’re not out there as the star players on our team and we realize that, but we’re counted on to play at a high level at our position,” Walsh said. “People need to realize that we can be the goat or the hero in any game or any situation. At times, that can be tough, especially if things don’t go your way.”
Kickers have created their own monster in recent years because the demands of the position have increased. When longtime Vikings fans are asked who the greatest kicker in franchise history was, Fred Cox gets his share of votes. Yet, Cox had a career field goal percentage of just 62. He pretty much missed two out of every five field goals he tried.
Over the last decade, the skill level of kickers has become such that 80 percent, which used to send kickers to the Pro Bowl, is now seen as a minimum standard for continued employment.
“There are certain percentage marks that used to be sacred,” Walsh said. “80 percent used to mean that you were good and can keep your job. Now you’ve got to be higher than that and you have to make 50-yarders on a regular (basis). There are certain aspects of the game that have changed so much because guys are getting trained at an earlier stage, guys coming into the league that are way more prepared than they were 10 years ago.”
In fact, the pressure has just continued to ratchet up. Walsh believes 80 percent is no longer viewed as acceptable. The numbers just keep getting higher and the belief that every kick should be made regardless of distance or conditions is going up along with them.
“There are certain expectations that are now in place that were not even five years ago,” Walsh said. “Guys with percentages around 83 are now at the bottom of the league. It’s crazy.”
When the Vikings and Lions meet Sunday, Walsh will have the obligatory pre-game conversation with his opposite, Prater, at midfield. Kickers are a tight-knit fraternity and all of them know that it’s only a matter of time before some kid comes along that replaces them. It’s a tough way to go through a career, but, as a player who replaced a recent legend in Longwell, Walsh was that kid.
He’s not looking over his shoulder, but the Lions’ quick hook with Freese and Henery serve as a reminder for all kickers that, if you miss too many, the NFL stands for Not For Long.
“Hey, it’s part of the business,” Walsh said. “There are only 32 of us in the league, so each job is precious and you have to be performing at a high level to keep one of those jobs.”
Walsh: Expectations increasing for kickers
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