A hard-knock NFL life

Jason King

Kickers have a hard-knock NFL life

MCT-He crammed his belongings into a box last week and left Arrowhead Stadium probably for the last time. His name has been erased from the team roster, his locker assigned to someone new. Instead of preparing for Sunday’s game at Chicago, former Kansas City Chiefs kicker Justin Medlock is back in his native California, wondering what went wrong. The snap was good. The hold was down. Yet somehow Medlock missed a 30-yard field goal in the Chiefs’ season-opening loss at Houston. “I can’t make any excuses,” Medlock said. “This is a business, and I didn’t perform. My first kick with the Chiefs was basically my last.” Medlock booted a meaningless field goal later in the game, but it didn’t matter. His initial shank led to his release the day after the loss. One week into the 2007 season, and the first kicker taken in last spring’s draft is already out of a job. “Here’s the thing you need to know about kickers,” Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said. “If it doesn’t work out, there’s always another guy out there. You can always find another kicker.” The same day Medlock was released, the Chiefs signed Dave Rayner, who started for Green Bay last season before being cut during training camp in favor of highly touted rookie Mason Crosby. Still, one has to wonder how many misses Rayner will be allowed before he, too, gets the hook from Edwards.

More and more these days, kickers are being disposed of like junk mail, with even the most seasoned veteran realizing that one or two mistakes could be enough to cost him his roster spot.

“With kickers, it’s not about, `What have you done for me lately?’ ” former Chiefs standout Nick Lowery said. “It’s about, `What have you done for me today?’ “

For Chiefs special-teams coach Mike Priefer, cutting Medlock after just one miss hardly seemed harsh. Priefer points out that Medlock struggled during the preseason and that his kickoffs were falling short. Heck, Priefer was on Jacksonville’s staff in 2002 when the Jaguars went through four kickers in one season. “Justin didn’t do what we needed him to do,” Priefer said. “That was a huge miss on Sunday. It wasn’t like it was a 55-yarder in the wind. It was a 30-yarder in a dome. Coach (Edwards) had been very patient with Justin, but, at some point, you have to move on.”

Patient? Medlock was around for only one game .

Rayner just hopes he’s not the next name on the transaction wire. He knows the empty feeling that accompanies being released. The Packers cut Rayner despite a preseason in which he made all four of his field goals while leading the league with a 72-yard kickoff average. “When you’re a kicker,” Rayner says, “you’re definitely playing a position that doesn’t get a whole lot of respect.” It does seem rather odd. Each week, games in the NFL are won by narrow scores or with last-second field goals. Yet kickers rarely carry much clout in the locker room. Their salaries aren’t exactly astronomical compared with their teammates, and they don’t seem to be held in very high regard by upper management. Only four kickers in the last 20 years have been selected in either the first or second round of the NFL draft.

Lowery is the Chiefs career scoring leader, but he said he was cut 11 times before finally hitting his stride. Morten Andersen is the NFL’s all-time leader in points with 2,445. But the team that drafted him, New Orleans, released Andersen after the 1994 season when people thought he was losing his touch. The following year, while kicking for Atlanta, Andersen tied an NFL record by kicking three field goals over 50 yards in one game against the Saints. “Time and time again you see teams thinking it’s worth it to cut a kicker that’s a dependable asset to their teams,” Lowery said. “It’s like the Tiger Woods model: You can drive the ball 350 yards and hit the fairway 16 of 18 times. But you still have to be able to putt. You’ve got to have a closer. It’s the most crucial part of the game. “Some coaches just have a lack of awareness and appreciation for the uniqueness of the position. There are only a few people that can be consistent. “And the ones that can are worth it.” Chances are good that, at some point today, Bears kicker Robbie Gould will attempt either a field goal or an extra point against the Chiefs. Sure beats hammering nails. That’s what Gould was doing as a member of a construction crew when the Bears called him in October 2005 and offered him a contract. “This game doesn’t sit around and wait for anyone,” Gould said. “There’s always someone out there ready to replace you_especially when you’re a kicker. Luckily I made the most of my chance.” In just his second NFL season, Gould ended up in the Pro Bowl after connecting on 32 of his 36 field-goal attempts in 2006. He also kicked for the Bears in the Super Bowl against Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri, arguably the best kicker in the league in recent years. Vinatieri went undrafted out of South Dakota State and instead got noticed while starring for Amsterdam in the World League of American Football. Andersen was out of football and broadcasting NFL Europe games before re-signing with the Falcons last fall. He was 46. Maybe that’s what Herm Edwards meant when he said “you can always find a kicker” when the one you have goes cold. “There are 32 jobs in the world for NFL kickers,” Chiefs punter/holder Dustin Colquitt said, “and there are probably 40 guys who can fill those spots. After that there’s a pretty significant dropoff. Once you get one of those jobs it’s up to you to keep it.” Not that it’s always easy. Along with the pressure-packed situations in tight games, kickers must also deal with the public backlash when they miss a field goal or extra point. Medlock was booed during his Arrowhead Stadium debut after missing a short kick. “When the game is tied 14-14 and you miss a kick, everyone knows it was you,” Colquitt said. “No one looks back at the two or three picks the quarterback threw or the fumble by the running back. It all goes to that one moment, in crunch time, when mistakes simply can’t be made.” Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle said kickers are in a tough position. “I think they get treated unfairly sometimes,” Croyle said. “They may get booed for missing a field goal at the end of the drive, but, before that, someone else may have done something stupid that kept us from scoring a touchdown. That stuff gets forgotten about.” Beginning with today’s game at Chicago, Rayner said he hopes to garner attention_for the right reasons. “I like the pressure,” he said. “I like that games come down to field goals and you get to be the hero. I enjoy what I do. It’s one of the greatest jobs a guy could have.” Back in California, Justin Medlock doesn’t know what’s next. Medlock’s agent is keeping his phone by his side in case another organization requests his services. If not, the Chiefs have hinted that they may want Medlock to join their practice squad. “If they offered me the chance to come back, I’d want to do it,” Medlock said. “I’m not eliminating the possibility. They’re just giving me some space right now to see what happens.” Edwards said he still believes Medlock will be a NFL kicker someday. But with the Chiefs struggling on offense, Edwards said the organization wasn’t in a position to develop a kicker. They needed someone more dependable. Granted, Edwards thought Medlock would be that guy. “We did everything we could to allow this kid the chance to be successful,” Edwards said. “It just hasn’t worked out for him so far.” When Medlock does get his second chance, he hopes things will be different than his first. The Chiefs were so confident in Medlock’s abilities that they traded Lawrence Tynes to the Giants during the offseason. That left Medlock as the only kicker on the training-camp roster. “It might have been good to bring in some other guys,” Medlock said. “Not so much for the competition, but just to save my leg. By those last few weeks my leg was dead. I played those last two games with a lot of soreness. You can’t be sore when you’re playing games. “I’m not trying to ma
ke excuses, though. I missed a 30-yarder. You can’t do that and expect to keep your job very long. “I’ll be fine. I’ve already put the Chiefs thing past me. I’ve been through a lot tougher things in my life than being cut by a football team.” Lowery, who still follows the team closely, said the Chiefs’ biggest mistake was putting so much stock in a rookie kicker and trading Tynes, who made three field goals in the Giants season-opener last week. “He had the potential to be an All-Pro,” Lowery said of Tynes. “I know he missed a kick in the playoffs last year, but they should’ve given him one more year to see if he’d continue to improve. I think he would have. “To me, every time you have a chance to nail down a position where you know you have someone you can depend on … that’s a tremendous opportunity. Some teams just don’t have the patience.” (c) 2007, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.