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In a New Holding Pattern

Breaking in a new holder for the first time in 14 seasons, Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski is off to one of his worst starts, with three misses through four games. Can the onetime can’t-miss lefty get his groove back in time for back-to-back AFC West showdowns with the Chargers and Chiefs?

OAKLAND, Calif. — By football standards, Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski was as dependable as a sunrise the previous two seasons. He made 31 of 35 field goal attempts in 2011 and converted on 31 of 34 last season, which is exponentially more impressive when considering his failures came from 64, 61 and 51 yards.

However, Janikowski has missed three of eight attempts through four games this year, matching the second worst start of his career. That’s not cause for panic, but it is reason for concern: The Raiders’ blueprint for success requires keeping games close through three quarters, then making a play in the fourth to win.

With Janikowski off his game, winning becomes even more difficult for the Raiders, who haven’t had a winning season since 2002. For instance, his 48-yard miss at the end of the first half in Week 1 in Indianapolis proved costly because the Raiders—trailing by four with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter—had to play for a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal on 3rd-and-goal from the 24-yard line. QB Terrelle Pryor forced a pass downfield that was picked off by safety Antoine Bethea.

Sebastian Janikowski (top) reacts to missing a field goal with new holder Marquette King against the Colts in Week 1. Below, the left-footed kicker celebrates a game-winning field goal with old holder Shane Lechler against the Steelers in 2012.

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His 52-yard miss in the third quarter last Sunday against Washington was also damaging. The Raiders had seen their 14-0 lead cut to four by halftime, and when Washington forced consecutive three-and-outs to start the third quarter, a wave of angst rolled over Coliseum. Oakland needed a big play to ease the tension, and Nick Roach provided it by forcing a fumble that Kevin Burnett recovered at the Washington 42. Four plays later, Janikowski missed wide left from a makable distance for the left-footer, who possesses one of the league’s strongest legs.

If he converts that takeaway into points, who knows what it does to the collective psyche of the Washington players, who entered the game feeling the pressure of an 0-3 start a year after winning the division. After the miss, Washington drove 58 yards in eight plays for its first lead and an eventual 24-14 victory.

Seabass, as he is known to family and friends, feels no reason to stress. He says he just needs to get on a positive roll—and perhaps he’s right. But history suggests something other than a happy ending. Janikowski has missed three or more attempts in the first four games of a season just twice in his career—in 2000 and 2005—and both times he finished with a conversion rate below 70%, the worst seasons in his 14-year career.

What gives? The most common refrain is that Janikowski is breaking in a new holder after the team opted to not re-sign Shane Lechler, the punter who had been his holder since they were drafted in 2000. Lechler signed as a free agent with Houston in the offseason.

“No question that (has) had an impact,” says another kicker, who keeps track of his colleagues. “Holding is not as easy as it looks. It’s even harder for a left-footed kicker. Most guys who have experience holding, it’s for a right-footed kicker. It’s very different switching to the other side. Even if the holder gets the ball in position—but they’re deliberate and slow—it makes it harder to kick because you don’t get to see the ball before kicking it. Janikowski is probably the fastest to the ball in the NFL, so that gives even less margin for error for the holder.”

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Janikowski and Lechler had a tight bond and were able to communicate without speaking. It was formed through years together in practices and games, during dinners and card games and golf outings. That might not seem important, but it’s the difference between success and failure when a game is on the line.

“I could go out there on any given day and hold my finger down to mark the spot, watch him take his steps, then look up without him saying one word and tell if he’s ready,” Lechler says. “I could tell if the wind was blowing a certain way that he wasn’t ready, so let me hold the spot a little longer for him. We’ve still got 8 on the play clock, let me hold it a few more seconds, just to let him get comfortable. Then I could tell just by looking at him that now he’s ready. It’s just minor things like that that maybe aren’t so big to people, but after he kicked the ball he’d always say thanks for waiting on that one. And we never said a word to each other.”

It’s almost unthinkable that Janikowski had just one holder for 13 years. When he began kicking in the NFL, Bill Clinton was still in office. Think about that for a second. Janikowski and Lechler’s union spanned 204 games, tens of thousand practice attempts, 324 field goals in 402 tries, and 420 PATs. It got to the point where everything became muscle memory—and success was expected, not hoped for.

“I remember jogging out on the field with him at times the past three years where we were at 53, 54, 55 yards and we’d snap the ball, hold it and he’d kick it through the uprights and we’d give each other a little high-five and walk off,” Lechler says. “That was just the norm for years. That’s just how it’s supposed to be. Then you look around the league at other kickers and they make a 55-yarder and celebrate like they just won the Super Bowl. But it was just the regular Sunday afternoon for us. I remember talking to him about the 51-yarder he missed last year and I’m like, ‘Dude, are you kidding me? What? We’re right here. It was like it was a chip shot.’ ”

Lechler was Janikowski's holder for 13 seasons, including Seabass's record-tying 63-yard field goal in Denver two years ago.

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Lechler laughs. It is the type of relationship that Marquette King is trying to develop with Janikowski. An undrafted rookie in 2012 who spent last season on injured reserve, King is Janikowski’s new holder. He did it for two years at Fort Valley State, but the kicker there was right-footed. King takes the job seriously. He is as dedicated as he is conscientious. While sidelined last season, he would go to the field by himself and practice his spotting by tossing up the ball and setting it on the spot. Other times he had his girlfriend toss the ball to him. He even had his parents throw the ball to him in the living room, while watching TV, so he could practice spotting it.

“I was constantly working on it,” King says. “You know how you do things so much that you don’t get nervous, you don’t get jitters, because you’re prepared for it? That’s what I wanted to do. I want to do what I can to help other people be successful, so I’m breaking my neck trying to get this right. It’s difficult, now. As soon as you touch the ball, you have to be able to recognize where those laces are, where the spot is, and make sure the ball is tilted correctly. It may look easy, but it’s not.”

Janikowski missed time in training camp because of a right calf injury, but his misses appear to be non-physical. His 52-yard attempt last week was easily long enough; it sailed offline to the left. Could his struggles simply be psychological? Has he not fully embraced the idea of having a new holder for the first time in 14 years? He admits he hasn’t developed the rapport with King that he had with Lechler—“Me and Marquette might kick in Week 7 or Week 8; you just work on it every week and try to get better”—and he’s also candid when he says there is no substitute for time.

“It’s frustrating to miss, especially if you know you can help the team win the games,” he says. “But we’ve been working on it and hopefully one of these weeks it clicks in and we go 20 for 20. That’s what we have to do, because you always want to get on a roll. Go five for five, 10 for 10, 20 for 20. We can do that.”