This one goes out to Brett Maher. Oh, Brett. It’s the divisional round of the NFL playoffs this weekend – the Super Bowl quarter-finals, if you like – and at least some portion of every preview since Monday night has worked its way around to the dread subject of the Dallas Cowboys kicker. That’s never good.
You don’t want to be a famous NFL kicker. If the broad shadow of NFL coverage happens to fall at any length upon a kicker, one of two things has happened. He has either done something exceptionally good or historically bad. Anything in between and the kicker melts back into the wallpaper. Not seen, not heard. An unplayer.
Back in September, the New York Times broke with decades of tradition and made Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens the focus of their splashy pre-season magazine profile. The headline read: “How Justin Tucker Became the Greatest Kicker In NFL History”. It got the full prestige treatment – 5,000 words of copy, a gravel-voiced audio reading that ran to a half an hour, black and white photos peppered through the piece. When the NYT goes mono with the pics, you know they’re paying homage. And telling you to do the same.
This does not happen to kickers. This has never happened. Kickers don’t get 5,000-word features written about them. Kickers kick or kickers miss and that’s as much as anyone wants to know. Tucker is the highest paid kicker in NFL history ($6 million a year), he has the best accuracy stats of any kicker ever (91.3 per cent) and has kicked the longest-ever field goal (66 yards). That’s how much of an outlier he needed to be to justify mainstream attention.
Maher is not the greatest kicker in NFL history. He’s not the worst, either. Far from it. He’s been knocking around pro football for a decade, both in the NFL and in Canada. This is his 10th stint on an NFL team – never quite dependable enough for someone to cement his future, never so unreliable that the sport has sent him packing altogether. His salary this season is a shade under a million bucks. A middling NFL kicker is something to be.
But there will have been times this week when Maher would have wished he had just about any other job in America. During the Cowboys’ emphatic win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night, Maher became the first kicker since 1936 to miss four PATs (conversions, in gridiron-speak) in a single game. He went from being a perfectly anonymous NFL kicker to a walking punchline in the space of four swings of his right boot.
In a way, the fact that the Cowboys thoroughly rinsed Tom Brady’s Buccaneers in the game probably made it worse. The final score was 31-14 and the Cowboys were 24-0 up early in the third quarter. If the game had been closer, Maher would surely have been pulled from kicking duty. The lowliest junior B team knows it’s better to take a lad off the frees too early rather than too late.
But because they were so far ahead, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy had the leeway to let Maher keep going, presumably in the hope that he would find his groove eventually. He managed to nail his fifth attempt, which was surely the most pressurised (and definitely the most watched) 30-6 kick in NFL history. By that stage, though, he was a walking meme.
One missed kick is no big deal. Most people only realise you’ve done it when they walk back into the room and see your team stuck on six rather than seven. Two in a row is rare but recoverable. Three in one game and you’re generally done for the night. You don’t get the chance to miss four – if it ever happened, your team would likely try to score a two-point touchdown instead.
That’s what has made the Maher situation such a delicate and delicious thing all week. The Cowboys play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. They are underdogs in the game but not by a lot, certainly not by enough to imagine they can get by without a kicker being at the top of his game. So what do they do?
The commentary around him, predictably enough, has not been kind. Kickers are still seen in plenty of quarters as ten-a-penny. Surely the Cowboys can find somebody who won’t miss four PATs? How hard can it be?
But it’s not as simple as sending Maher on his way and telling him to have a nice life. In the context of Maher’s season, Monday night was a clear aberration. He actually topped the league in terms of successful PATs in the 17 regular season games – he only missed three all year. Beyond that, only Tucker has rivalled him this season when it comes to long-distance kicks made. By the numbers, he’s right up there among the most reliable kickers left in the playoffs.
And yet, playing him is clearly a huge risk to take. All the chips are heading into the middle of the table and the Cowboys have no way of knowing what they hold in their hand. It looks like Maher is definitely going to play – they signed a back-up kicker during the week but all indications are that McCarthy is going to stick with what he has and hope Monday night was just a glitch in the system.
All of which ratchets up the drama and fixes the spotlight squarely on the Dallas No 19. The moment will come on Sunday night, nothing surer. Early or late or both. Extra point or field goal or both. The Cowboys can’t win if he has a repeat performance.
The 49ers are home, at night. The crowd will be merciless in the stadium. Millions will be watching around the world. Snap, hold, kick. Look up. Hope.
Best of luck, Brett.