Kicking: the loneliest job in the NFL

Rob Woollard
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Minnesota Vikings kicker Daniel Carlson reacts to missing a potential game-winning field goal against the Green Bay Packers. He was released by the club a day later

You have one job. And then, suddenly, you don't.

The role of kicker is often described as the loneliest occupation in the NFL and after their rapid-fire sackings this week, Daniel Carlson and Zane Gonzalez are unlikely to disagree.

Just two weeks into the new season, Carlson and Gonzalez are looking for new employment after being axed by the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns respectively.

Both men paid the price for multiple missed field goals during their respective outings last Sunday.

Carlson was shown the door by the Vikings after fluffing three crucial field goals in a 29-29 tied game with the Green Bay Packers.

The 23-year-old rookie's misses included a straightforward 35-yard attempt with the final play of the game which allowed the Packers to escape with a tie at Lambeau Field.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was in no mood to be persuaded that Carlson was worth persevering with.

An arm around the shoulder? A vote of confidence? Zimmer was having none of it. Instead, Zimmer described the decision to cut Carlson just two games into his NFL career as "pretty easy."

"Yeah, well, that's life," Zimmer told reporters. "It's hard to figure out. You think you got a guy for a while and then he goes out and misses three in a big game. But, you know, things happen, I guess."

Carlson could at least take a crumb of consolation from the fact that he was not alone. As Carlson was clearing out his locker in Minneapolis, Gonzalez was also heading for the exit in Cleveland.

- The blame game -

The Browns kicker was released on Monday after missing four kicks at goal which effectively cost his team eight points in a 21-18 defeat to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Gonzalez, appeared gloomily resigned to his fate after the loss, readily shouldering the blame for his team's failure.

"It's on me 100 percent," said Gonzalez, who had also missed a potential game-winner against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week one.

"I can't be too mad at myself because I'm the one that did it, you know what I mean? I can't blame it on (anybody) else. It sucks because we were so close to that win, and it's been so long. I just let everybody down."

Carlson and Gonzalez are by no means unique.

The history of the NFL is littered with kickers who have been swiftly jettisoned from a sport which is famously unforgiving on the men entrusted with kicking the ball through the uprights a handful of times per game.

"Kickers are like taxi cabs," the revered former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan once said. "You can always go out and hire a new one."

The Ryan philosophy is alive and well in the modern NFL, where kickers ply their trade in the knowledge that they are only ever one missed field goal away from unemployment, or worse, notoriety.

Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood had enjoyed six successful years in the NFL until he missed a 47-yard attempt to win the 1991 Super Bowl.

Now Norwood's name is synonymous with that agonising last-gasp miss, an exemplary career unfairly defined by the one that got away.

- Mental pressure -

Learning how to manage the mental pressure that comes with the position is a crucial part of preparation that is often overlooked, says Michael Husted, a former kicker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs.

"It's something that you have to get used to, whether you're in high school, college or the NFL. It's part of the job description," Husted told AFP.

"It's a lot of pressure. I always tell people you have to have thick skin like a rhinoceros. And a short memory.

"When you get hired you're going to have nerves, and how you handle that will determine your future success. But you learn more from your failures.

"You never want to see what happened to Daniel Carlson or Zane Gonzalez. But you go through it and you try to learn from it. It's crappy going through it. And it stinks for a while.

"But I guess someone's got to be a fall guy. It's crappy, but it's a results-oriented business."

Husted, who coaches kickers at all levels of the game, breaks down kicking into three components.

"You've got leg conditioning and your technique in terms of your form. But you've also got your mental training. A lot of guys don't focus on the mental training enough.

"Sometimes there is that 'Oh, you're seeing a sports psychologist, what's wrong?' sort of response. Ideally we would be over that as a society.

"But you have a strength coach, you have a kicking coach. Why wouldn't you have a mental coach?"

Often, kickers seek solace in the sense of fraternity that exists amongst players.

Husted describes it as the "unspoken word" between kickers.

"I remember once when a guy was lining up a game-winning kick against us," he said.

"I wanted us to win. Of course. But at the same time I didn't want to see a fellow kicker miss."