- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

The impatient coach wanted to cut a rookie kicker at halftime of his first game. The crowd howled for his ouster after he missed two short field goals. The special teams coach pleaded for patience.

Mark Moseley went on to kick a record 23 straight field goals and earn the 1982 NFL Most Valuable Player Award during a 12-year career, but he conceded, "I could have been gone before it started."

Kickers have never enjoyed job security, but the recent turnover has been near epidemic. The Washington Redskins are using a third kicker for the second time in three seasons. Four other teams have already booted their first choices.

Why can't the Redskins find a kicker? After they needed only three from 1969-94, aside from two one-year wonders, recently signed Kris Heppner will become Washington's ninth kicker since 1994 when he faces the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. There also was sixth-rounder Jeff Hall, who was cut during training camp last year.

It's not that Washington has become the black hole of kickers, because Dallas and the New York Giants are among teams that regularly change specialists. However, Washington missed getting Joe Nedney and Todd Peterson, who signed with Carolina and Kansas City, respectively. NFL sources said both kickers considered the other teams first for fear of getting caught in Washington's recycling system.

Certainly the Redskins have been unlucky with two kickers injured and three others playing at the end of their careers. However, David Akers was cut after one bad game and is now 8-for-8 for Philadelphia. Finding a kicker has proven more elusive for Washington than finding a quarterback, with seven passers starting for the Redskins during coach Norv Turner's seven seasons.

"I thought we were settled, and then Brett [Conway] had the injury," Turner said. "If Brett stayed healthy, I don't think we would be in this. We have to find a guy we can count on to make those kicks."

The Redskins released Michael Husted on Tuesday after he kicked game winners two straight weeks. Overall, he converted only four of seven, with one blocked in three games.

Often free agents with small contracts that are easily expendable, kickers are now discarded regularly. Coaches whose jobs might depend on the kicker can't risk a slump.

"You don't have a lot of time to get it right," said Baltimore coach Brian Billick. "You don't have time to put a warm, fuzzy arm around them and say 'That's OK, son, that we lost these three games in a row because you can't make a PAT. Do you think you can work yourself through it?' It just doesn't work that way. There's enough guys out there. You hate to put anything on a revolving door, but that's one spot where you have to have proven productivity."

Said Seattle special teams coordinator Pete Rodriguez: "Kickers are only as good as their last game. Unless they're established, teams won't have a lot of patience. It's hard to take a chance with a young kicker."

Baltimore kicker Matt Stover has scored the Ravens' last 30 points during his 18-for-20 streak. However, "Stove Top" was cut by the Giants in 1992 and knows unemployment comes quickly.

"You can't have two bad games in a row," he said. "If [coaches] lose confidence in you, [it's because] their jobs are on the line, too, and they want to make sure everyone out there can win ballgames."

It's hard to gain confidence when the team is checking the free agent list. Kickers are a close fraternity, and everyone knows who's on the bubble. That's tough on players who rely on their mental focus more than size or speed for success.

Moseley claims teams don't invest enough time into building kickers' mental toughness. Dallas has the NFL's only kicking coach. Special teams coaches who have to work with coverage and return units, plus punters, are too overwhelmed to stroke the kicker's psyche.

"They're scared. They're nervous," Moseley said. "Heppner is going to be scared to death. He says he's not, but if you put a blood pressure kit on him, it will hit 200."

Kickers rarely look to teammates for support, other than the punter. Men who earned a living with their feet often become best friends because they work out together away from the team.

"They want to feel like they're part of the team, but at the end of one [Oakland] Raiders practice when it was time for special teams to come out and start practicing, I walked into the weight room and see the punter and the kicker playing cards with each other in full uniform," said Fox SportsNet analyst Bob Golic. "It is things like that that don't endear kickers to the rest of the players."

Said Fox SportsNet analyst Sean Jones: "When you hear teammates say, 'We have faith in our kicker,' that's the kiss of death. That means they have no faith in you."

Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson conceded that Husted's early misses against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia were disheartening to a struggling offense.

"It really hurt us. It changed the dynamics of the game," Johnson said. "We had a 15-play drive, and it takes a lot out of an offense [to miss the field goal]."

Coaches look for aggressiveness as well as accuracy and long kickoffs. They want an air of confidence. Can he make a game-winner on the road before a hostile crowd? Will he shirk away from a big kick? Can he tackle a returner? It's only a guess, because game films don't reveal character.

"You never know how a guy's character is going to hold up under the scrutiny in the NFL, which is beyond anything they faced in college," Billick said. "He can be fundamentally sound. He can have a good stroke, but until he puts his hand in the fire you don't know how he's going to perform."

Then again, coaches can become too involved and make kickers think too much. The more they think, the less they rely on mechanics. Suddenly, everything is wide right.

Moseley recalled a coach who spent excessive time analyzing each kick. Moseley missed 10 of his first 14 attempts in 1980 before the coach was fired. He then made five field goals in the next game, including two from 50 yards-plus.

"People don't realize what goes into kicking," Moseley said. "It has to become like a golf swing. It has to become automatic. You can't think about it, or your head comes up and you're not watching the ball. You exert so much energy so fast it's like a sprinter coming out of the blocks."

Or a sprinter heading down the road. If Heppner doesn't quickly succeed, he will be replaced. It's the NFL way.

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