- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

By this stage of the season, NFL teams usually have their kicking situations pretty well squared away. After all, you don’t want to go into December with a kicker you’re not sure of, a guy who could butcher a 35-yarder and cost you a playoff berth. You want your kicker to be in a groove, on a roll and, if at all possible, in “the zone,” too.

But a lot of clubs are holding their breath right now, clubs that have a lot riding on these last three games. Look at the NFC East. Dallas (7-6) just replaced struggling Richie Cunningham with doddering Eddie Murray. The Giants (7-6) have pinned their hopes on Cary Blanchard, who was unemployed and working out on his own two months ago. And the Redskins (8-5) are trying to ride out the youthful ups and downs of Brett Conway.

(Just think: The division title could be decided by three past or present Redskins kickers. How eerie is that?)

Then there’s Minnesota (7-6). The Vikings’ Gary Anderson didn’t miss any of his kicks in the ‘98 regular season, an NFL first, but this year he has been less than automatic (17-for-27). He misfired again Sunday night from 45 yards three points the Vikes could have used in their 31-28 loss to Kansas City.

And what about Buffalo (8-5)? The Bills dropped a 19-17 decision to the Giants, in part because Steve Christie missed two field goal tries, one a 39-yarder. Christie is just 8-for-17 from 30 to 49 yards this year. Is he going to be there for the Bills if they need him down the stretch?

Seattle (8-5), meanwhile, went down to defeat for the third straight time Sunday thanks to three errant field goal attempts in the fourth quarter by Todd Peterson (the last from 38). The Seahawks, who once led the AFC West by three games, are now going to have to win the division all over again with a kicker who might be a little shaky.

The NFL was never like this before this nervous, this volatile. But there are so many close games now; everything kickers do is magnified, especially their mistakes. Consider the season Oakland has had. The Raiders are 6-7 and all but out of the playoff picture, but every one of their losses has been by a touchdown or less. Had they gotten better kicking from Michael Husted, who missed two more field goal tries in Thursday’s 21-14 loss to Tennessee, they would probably still be in the hunt. The only thing they’re in the hunt for now, alas, is a new kicker (according to reports).

“That’s the life of a kicker,” Husted says philosophically. “You don’t have to learn plays. You don’t have to study a playbook.”

You just have to boot ‘em through. Or else.

Husted has a pretty good track record, too (73 percent success rate before this year). That’s why Oakland ditched Greg Davis after last season and signed Husted away from Tampa Bay. But free agency the sheer availability of players has turned the NFL into the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Heck, Cunningham was practically perfect for the Cowboys in ‘97 (34-for-37) and was almost as good last year (29-for-35). But he hits the first slump of his career this year (12-for-22) and Jerry Jones, fearful the kid will take the Cowboys down with him, brings in the more experienced Murray.

The wind can shift so quickly for a kicker. Peterson had connected on 16 in a row, a Seattle record, when he suddenly ran into trouble Sunday against San Diego. Now everyone from Mike Holmgren to the fan in the top row is wondering about him. The Chargers’ John Carney feels Peterson’s pain. “I’ve been there,” he says, “and it’s a terrible feeling. But when you’re in this league long enough, [you realize] those days happen every once in a while and you just have to fight through it. I know Todd will, and he’ll continue to have a great season.”

Unless, of course, he doesn’t. Two of the Seahawks’ final three games, let’s not forget, are in potentially wintry settings (at Denver, at Jets).

On the local front, the Redskins are praying Conway is over the nightmarish stretch that saw him miss three gimmes from 27, 28 and 38 yards in the space of two games. The last couple of weeks have been pretty quiet for him, which is probably just what the psychiatrist ordered. He didn’t even attempt a field goal in Sunday’s 28-3 victory over the Cardinals. All he had to do was boot four extra points.

“You would have liked to get him a 28-yarder, just for his confidence,” Norv Turner says. “But, yeah, it’s probably good that he had a day off’ like that. He’s been kicking the ball much better in practice lately. Hopefully we can get him back to where he was earlier in the season.”

Murray (Redskins, ‘95) wasn’t much of an improvement over Cunningham in his first outing Sunday. He made two field goals and missed two (one from 33 yards). Blanchard (Redskins ‘98), on the other hand, has gone 12-for-13 since joining the Giants and drilled a game-winning 48-yarder against the Bills. These are the guys Brett Conway, Eddie Murray and Cary Blanchard who could well decide the fates of three teams this season. And the fates of three coaches, too.

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