October 22, 2010

33 Yards Between Glory and Unemployment

As Redskins placekicker Graham Gano lined up to kick a potential game-winning 33-yard field in overtime against the Green Bay Packers, I jotted down the phrase that would become the title of this column.

In the heat of the moment the comment seemed utterly reasonable. If in the cool light of hindsight it reads a little hyperbolic, that is because Gano coolly drilled the kick down the middle, sealing the Redskins’ dramatic come-from-behind victory over a team that had dominated them throughout most of the game.

Had Gano missed, however, the title might well have served as a roster move announcement.

In the NFL placekickers are generally noticed—only truly register with fans—when they miss. Professional field goal kickers are “supposed” to make routine 33-yarders to win overtime games. And they do, for the most part.

When they succeed fans go home happy and spend the afterglow hours talking about everything but the kicker. They talk about the quarterback that drove the team down the field to set the kick up; they talk about a defense that dug in its heels and limited one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses to three second-half points.

If the kicker misses, it’s a very different story.

Gano had already missed once earlier in the game after all. And he had missed a potential overtime game-winner against Houston in a game the Redskins would go on to lose. If he had missed the overtime kick against the Packers, it would have come as only a mild surprise to Redskins fans if Gano been released the following day.

And no wonder.

The term “revolving door” barely seems adequate to describe the position of placekicker on this team in recent years. When one hears the words “Washington Redskins kicker,” the first name that comes to mind might still be Mark Moseley.

Moseley owned the position for 13 years between 1974-86. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and, in 1982, became the only kicker in NFL history to win the league MVP award while helping the Redskins win their first Super Bowl. He was a fixture.

Though no one knew it at the time, the year after Moseley retired foreshadowed a Redskins future few could have envisioned. Five placekickers attempted field goals for the Redskins in 1987. If this were Jeopardy, how many of these names would you come up with?

Steve Cox, Ali Haji-Sheikh, Obed Ariri, Brendan Toibin and Jess Atkinson.

The following offseason the Redskins were criticized by many for using a second round draft pick on the University of Minnesota’s Chip Lohmiller. Their faith was rewarded, however, as Lohmiller locked down the position for seven years (1988-94). Along the way he turned in a Pro Bowl performance that helped the Redskins in their final Super Bowl campaign in 1991.

Discounting the transition year between Moseley and Lohmiller, the Redskins had two placekickers in 20 years. In the NFL that is nothing short of remarkable.

The years since have also been remarkable, but not for the same reason.

In the 15 seasons since Lohmiller was released after the 1994 season, no less than 16 placekickers have attempted field goals for the Washington Redskins. Some of the names on that list will not even register with most Redskins fans. Others may cause a brief flicker of recognition, raised eyebrow or eye-roll.

None will stand in lore or conjure Redskins glory.

David Akers, Scott Blanton, Cary Blanchard, Scott Bentley, Kris Heppner, Michael Husted, Eddie Murray, Brett Conway, Jose Cortez, James Tuthill, Jeff Chandler, Ola Kimrim, Nick Novak, John Hall, Shaun Suisham and Graham Gano.

Yes, sometimes one has provided a shining moment that may almost have had fans believing the Redskins had found The Guy. The memory of Nick Novak sprinting around FedEx Field after breaking Dallas’ heart with an improbable game-winner in 2006 with no time left on the clock after the late Sean Taylor’s return of a blocked Cowboys field goal attempt, is still fresh.

But like so many others before and since, Novak’s name has just as quickly faded back into obscurity.

So as Gano lined up in overtime against Green Bay, Redskins fan could hardly be blamed for chewing lips, watching between fingers, suffering knots in their guts and assuming the worst.

Asked about his mindset approaching the final game-winning attempt after missing a kick earlier in the game, Gano said, "On that last one, it helps if I make that kick—everybody forgets the big miss. I think right after I miss a field goal, sure, I'm mad. I think everybody's mad. I think it's good I can just forget about that kick and focus on that next one."

That’s the thing. Like so many others that have come before, Mr. Gano assumes there will be a next one.

If he is The One, or simply The Latest, only time will tell.

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ruffin said...

I thought Ali Haji-Sheikh had done better than one year in DC, but it looks like I was recalling his three with the Giants, where he bagged a Pro Bowl season. (I probably also subconsciously gave him credit for kicking 51% of his FGs for the Giants in 84.)

Kickers do make you wonder. Would Akers really have been any worse in DC, if they'd kept him? Past blocks and pressure, I can't imagine kickers get much better or worse depending on team; they all seem of a cloth, able to forget the last kick seconds after watching its result. The question is only where they'll be doing their business.

Gano is confident, has a strong leg, and, when on his game, deadly accurate, even at long range. I hope the Skins keep him, even beyond the average NFL FO's tolerance for kickers. Assume he's going to have a bad streak, and I bet he makes it up for you later. So many of the stopgaps that picked up a pair of shorts in DC barely had the leg to try a 60 yarder. Gano's got ability. Develop him.

And, if for no other reason, it'll save you the hassle of watching more kickers try out three times a season.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

I was reminded that in Moseley's last season ('86) the Skins also one of the Kicking Zendejas Brothers kick some FG's. In fact, in '86 Zendejas actually kicked more than Moseley did.

So add another name to the litany.

Mad Max Zendejas.

As to Gano ... the only thing I've seen to complain about to date has been his tendency to bail out early on longer attempts and push them right. He clearly has the leg--the man bombs it. As with most kickers it will come down to what he has between the ears and how icy he can turn his blood in the biggest moments.

Even Adam Vinatieri is just guy physically. It's the cold-blooded killer instinct that sets him apart. Hard to overstate how big it would be for the Redskins to find a guy like that---a guy that is weapon instead of a coin flip.

Been a very long time.