Chargers' Kaeding explains lonely life of kicker, looks to rebound
Until second-year New Orleans kicker
The current playoff failure doesn't jibe with the regular season, when kickers made 81.3 percent of their field goal attempts, the fourth-best season ever. But it does jibe with history, and probability. Since 1984, NFL kickers have performed better in the playoffs than in the regular season 10 times, worse 11 times and about the same five times. Given the small sample size of kicks, a really bad postseason, with some prominent misses, was inevitable.
When a kicker fails in the playoffs, it's news.
And that's what they are doing now to
Full disclosure: I first talked to Kaeding last year for a piece in SI explaining why this is the golden age for placekicking. He said he had read my book about spending a training camp with the Denver Broncos as a kicker. After the season, he called to say he was on a board to promote his hometown Iowa City's designation as a UNESCO "City of Literature." He thought the city could host a Scrabble tournament, and wanted to learn more. (My previous book was about that game.) In the offseason, we had lunch in Washington, where Kaeding, a political science major at the University of Iowa, was tagging along with Iowa City officials visiting their congressional delegation. Kaeding is intelligent, friendly and thoughtful, and we've stayed in touch since.
After his 0-for-3 performance against the New York Jets in an AFC divisional playoff game, I sent a condolence e-mail and asked if he'd be willing to talk about what happened, and why. We spoke on Tuesday, after Kaeding arrived in Miami for Sunday's Pro Bowl. He had earned a spot in the game by making 32 of 35 regular-season field goals, increasing his career percentage to an NFL all-time best 87.2 percent. He also led the NFL in scoring with 146 points.
But in the media narrative, Kaeding had a reputation for playoff failure. As a rookie in 2004, he missed a 40-yarder in overtime against the Jets. In 2006, he missed a 54-yarder with three seconds left to tie New England. In 2007, he missed a 45-yarder against Tennessee and a 48-yarder against the Colts. But since then, he had made six playoff kicks in a row: four in the 2007 AFC Championship Game, a 21-12 loss to the Patriots, and two in 2008.
Entering the Jets game, Kaeding didn't give his playoff reputation a thought, because in his mind he didn't have a playoff reputation: The misses were a lifetime ago. After a career-best season, he even was feeling even less than the usual pregame jitters. "I just felt pretty damn good and ready to play," he said. "No nerves whatsoever.''
And then, boom. In the first quarter of a scoreless game, Kaeding missed from 36 yards. It was his first miss after 20 makes and his first miss from inside 40 yards after an NFL-record 69 makes. "I just got blindsided," he said. "It was going so good for so long it was like the world came crashing down on me with that miss. It was so far out of my belief of what would happen in that game."
When he was called on to kick again, Kaeding couldn't suppress those feelings. He missed a 57-yarder before halftime that landed short and right, and a crucial 40-yarder late in the game that went wide right. The mental lapses surprised him. Kaeding is proud of his ability to rebound; he wouldn't have made it this far if he couldn't.
"I learned long ago that the biggest room for improvement I have is in your mind," he said. "That's your biggest obstacle at this point. You're strong and healthy as ever, you're technically refined. Now it's just a matter of handling the variety of mental and emotional situations you're thrown as a kicker.
"There was a situation thrown at me I wasn't prepared to handle. That's tough to admit as an athlete, as a person. I wasn't tough enough to handle it on that particular day. There's no doubt in my mind I could step out there and kick a game-winner in the Super Bowl, no doubt in my mind I could make it.
"I've got some room to improve . I'm not afraid to admit that. This is the reality of my current situation. I'm not one to run and hide from it."
That sort of candor is unusual in an athlete, and refreshing. It may not make fans feel any better about "their" team's big defeat, but it should help them understand sports and athletes better. Failure happens. It'll happen again.
So what did actually happen to Kaeding, psychologically? Why did he fail? I asked
Missing a kick in a big game results in "an exponential increase in the pressure," McDuff said. "Each miss makes you think more about the importance of the misses. It's not three misses. To me it's nine misses."
Many athletes use physical cues to help override mental distractions. For instance, Stover's need to focus on his bent-over, King Tut stance may help shut out mental noise. In his autobiography
After the game, Kaeding went home with his wife,
"The whole team wasn't playing well," said
Kaeding didn't watch television or read the papers for a couple of days. Chargers fans were predictably, brutally cruel. When Kaeding did turn on the TV, a promo for the local news showed the Haiti earthquake and then cut to a Chargers fan at a Wal-Mart attempting to get a refund on a Kaeding jersey.
"I wasn't really angry, but it framed it for me," Nate said. "That's the privilege and right fans have. They have the right to buy into what I'm doing when it's going good and sell when it's going bad. I don't have that right. My name's going to be attached to me whether I do good or bad. That was my name on that Sunday in that playoff game. But I have ownership over what I do. It's a reminder of the challenge that lies ahead: More and more of the outside noise coming from people who have that right to give up on you and on any athlete.
"But I'm in this regardless of the good times or bad. You're a kicker. There are going to be down times. Some are going to be extreme like this. You can't just jump out of it when you feel like it."
Kaeding wasn't looking forward to getting on a plane to Miami for the Pro Bowl. But Turner and, eventually, Kaeding agreed that kicking again would help speed his recovery process. ("A. Coming to terms with what happened. B. Deciphering why it happened. C. Formulating an actionable solution/plan to ensure that it doesn't happen again," Kaeding e-mailed me after we spoke.) The Chargers staff was working the game, and Kaeding was friends with the AFC's Pro Bowl punter,
On Wednesday, Kaeding kicked a dozen or so balls with Lechler holding. On the next one, he cocked his foot back and felt something strange. An MRI revealed a hamstring injury. He went home to Iowa City on Thursday and will have another MRI to determine the extent of the injury and then begin treatment.
Kaeding explained the news without self-pity. Only resignation and a little disbelief. The Pro Bowl, he said, "was just a good way to kick a few balls and start moving the train forward." The train stopped, and another passenger got on. "It's mystifying for me," he said on Friday morning. "But these things, like life, you can't really know or control. Things just happen."