How Kicking Killed the 2018 Steelers—and What To Do About It for 2019

Chris Boswell went from the Pro Bowl in 2017 to the outhouse in 2018, as missed field goals and extra points cost Pittsburgh a playoff spot. Steelers fan favorite Jeff Reed, who kicked for the team from 2002 to 2010, heard the complaints (and a few calls for a comeback) and has some ideas on how things could have been different last season—and can be in 2019.
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A few Sundays this past fall, Jeff Reed says he would be at the mall, or at lunch with a friend, or out running errands when his phone would start blowing up with messages and social media alerts. Uh-oh, he’d think to himself. What happened in the Steelers game?

Reed’s friends and random Steelers fans would bombard him:

What’s wrong with Chris Boswell?

Bro, you can still kick at 39 years old.

Bring back Jeff Reed!

“I’ve never felt so important,” Reed says, and then he catches himself. “Of course when I played … ” Reed was the Steelers’ placekicker for about nine seasons, from 2002-2010. For much of that time he was one of the most reliable kickers in the game. He made 82 percent of his field goals in the regular season and 89 percent in the playoffs; he won two Super Bowls with the Steelers; and he twice served as a team captain, a rarity for a kicker.

But that was almost nine years ago. Now 40, Reed says he still has fans lighting up his social media accounts, because Steelers kicker Chris Boswell had a rough 2018.

This past season Boswell made only 65 percent of his field goals and missed five extra points. Some of those bad kicks proved important—they likely cost the Steelers at least two wins: the Week 1 game at Cleveland, which ended in a tie, and the Week 14 game at Oakland, a 24-21 defeat. Then there were two more close losses—to the Chiefs and the Broncos— that arguably could’ve swung the other way had Boswell been more consistent. That’s three to four potential wins the Steelers left on the table.

The overtime miss against the Browns in the opener set the tone for Boswell’s season of woe.

The overtime miss against the Browns in the opener set the tone for Boswell’s season of woe.

Pittsburgh had already been dealing with a fair amount of drama, with Le’Veon Bell sitting out the season over a contract dispute. All those missed kicks only added more pressure down the stretch, as the Steelers fought for a playoff spot. Just before the final game of the season, emotions boiled over: Antonio Brown walked out on practice after having a dispute with Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers finished the season 9-6-1, one win short of the postseason. They probably would’ve made the playoffs had Boswell made even just one or two of those kicks. Maybe making the playoffs would have helped soothe some of the simmering tension, maybe not. Nevertheless, Bell and Brown left this offseason, and the Steelers were left wondering where everything went wrong.

The low point may have come in Week 14 against the Raiders. Midway through the game, Roethlisberger suffered a rib injury that sidelined him for a good chunk of the second half, which allowed Oakland—which was 2-10 at the time—to hang around and then take a 24-21 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had one last chance: they had the ball at their own 30, with 15 seconds left. Now back in the game, Roethlisberger threw to James Washington, who lateraled to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who broke free down the sideline. The hook-and-ladder went for 43 yards, setting up Boswell up for a 40-yard field goal try. If Boswell made the kick, the game would’ve gone to overtime, where the Steelers surely would’ve had the advantage.

As Boswell went to strike the ball, his plant leg slipped out from under him on the Raiders’ patchy grass. The kick came out low and appeared to hit the back of Boswell’s own lineman. On the sideline, Roethlisberger closed his eyes and threw his head back in disgust.

At one point the following week, Jeff Reed, perhaps the most beloved kicker in franchise history, reached out to Kevin Colbert, the Steelers’ general manager, offering to come back and coach Boswell through his slump. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m not here to stir the pot. I’m not here to make him worse or get in his head,’ ” Reed says. “I said, ‘I’m not coming to steal somebody’s job.’ The least he’ll be threatened by is me, regardless of what social media says. … I don’t like to see people fail. I don’t thrive on that. I said, ‘All I want to do is help.’ ”

A slip on the dodgy Oakland turf cost the Steelers a chance to take the Raiders into overtime in Week 14.

A slip on the dodgy Oakland turf cost the Steelers a chance to take the Raiders into overtime in Week 14.

Reed had to make his intentions clear, because this wasn’t the first time he had asked to return to the organization. Back in 2015, the last time the Steelers had this kind of trouble with their kicking game, Reed had contacted Colbert, asking for a tryout. The Steelers’ first two kickers that season, Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley, had gotten hurt, and their third, Josh Scobee, was struggling badly. “I said, what’s it going to hurt [to ask]?” Reed says now. At that point he had been out of football for about four years. He says he’d been training and was in shape, but he’d also just taken a job at a North Carolina car dealership.

“I said, ‘Listen, man, no hard feelings from the release,’ ” Reed says. “ ‘I’d love to put on the uniform again, if you just give me a fair shot.’ ”

Colbert politely declined Reed’s request. As Reed recalls, “He just basically said they were looking for a young guy they can coach and mold to be a veteran like me. Which is fine. You’re looking at it from a financial [perspective], maybe they just didn’t want to bring me back. I don’t know. I’m not on the business side of the NFL.”

Instead, the Steelers signed Boswell, at the time a 24-year-old kicker from Rice who was coming off brief stints with the Texans and Giants. It proved to be a smart choice. From 2015 to 2017 Boswell made 89.5 percent of his field goals in the regular season and was a perfect 15-for-15 in the playoffs. After the 2017 season, Boswell made the Pro Bowl— an accomplishment that not even Reed achieved. On the eve of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh signed Boswell to a new five-year deal worth about $20 million, making him one of the highest-paid kickers in the league.

Boswell’s field goal accuracy dropped from 92% in 2017 to 65% last season.

Boswell’s field goal accuracy dropped from 92% in 2017 to 65% last season.

Then Boswell unraveled, and here was Reed, reaching out again. This time, though, Reed said he wanted to help Boswell, not take his job. But again, Colbert politely declined Reed’s offer. As Reed recalls, “He said thank you, and we appreciate you, and we’re going to work with him, and hopefully he gets rid of his inconsistencies. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

That same week the Steelers brought in two kickers for tryouts: Kai Forbath and Matt McCrane. “I had heard of one of them, I hadn’t heard of the other,” Reed says. Pittsburgh ultimately decided to stick with Boswell for the rest of the season. Surely, having just signed him to a lucrative contract extension factored into the Steelers’ thought process.

After that, they announced, too, they were bringing in Shaun Suisham, the Steelers kicker from 2010 to ’15, to help coach Boswell. Reed saw the news the day after he spoke to the Steelers’ GM offering to come back in that role himself. “It kind of hurt a little bit seeing that,” Reed says. “But maybe they had that planned all along, and I just happened to text the day before.”

The next game, Week 15 against the Patriots, Boswell missed a 32-yarder. Fortunately for him and the Steelers, the miss didn’t end up mattering that much: Pittsburgh won, 17-10. The week after that, Boswell made all four of his kicks in a close loss to the Saints, and it looked as though he might be turning a corner. Then just before the season finale, while the Steelers were still fighting for a playoff spot, they placed Boswell on injured reserve with an undisclosed ailment (reported to be a groin tear). They signed McCrane, one of the kickers they’d worked out, and he made three field goals in that final game, a win over the Bengals.

Had the Ravens lost that week, the Steelers would’ve snuck into the playoffs, and McCrane presumably would’ve remained their kicker in the postseason. Then, who knows? Maybe he would’ve kicked well enough to unseat Boswell.

In January, team president Art Rooney II said the Steelers will likely bring in training camp competition for Boswell. The kicker was due a $2 million roster bonus in March, but there’s speculation that the team went to him and had the date of that bonus pushed back. Cutting Boswell would cost the Steelers $4.2 million against the salary cap if they do it before June 1; after that the hit would be larger but spread out over two years.

For what it’s worth, Reed believes he could have helped Boswell through his 2018 struggles. Reed works in the CBD industry now, but he coaches high school kickers in his spare time. He’s also watched Boswell plenty over the years and doesn’t believe Boswell’s issues are mechanical. Heinz Field is a notoriously tough place to kick due to wind tunnels, but Reed doesn’t think that’s it, either. Boswell missed field goals in six separate games this year, and four of those were on the road.

Reed thinks Boswell’s problem is entirely mental. “I can see it in his face, I can read his body language,” Reed says. “If he misses a kick, nobody’s coming over to the sideline and saying, ‘C’mon, bro, it’s all good. Make the next one. We’ll need you to hit a game-winner.’ There’s none of that, man.” Reed says he saw Marcel Pastoor, the Steelers’ assistant strength coach, try to console Boswell on the sideline last season, but not many others. “Where’s the love from the team?” Reed asks. “O.K., he’s struggled a bit. Pick him up! There’s a lot of people struggling. It’s not just him. It’s just, he gets the bulk of the blame because he’s responsible for points.”

Reed was not your standard NFL placekicker.

Reed was not your standard NFL placekicker.

The solution, Reed says, is for Boswell to loosen up a bit, and Reed says he told Colbert that Boswell “needs to learn how to have fun.” Reed knows how that sounds, coming from him. During his playing days, the media labeled him as eccentric. He may have been the first kicker in NFL history to bleach his hair blonde. “People get the perception that I was a party animal,” Reed says. In 2009, near the end of his career, Reed had two run-ins with the law. First, he damaged a paper-towel dispenser in a convenience store bathroom. Then he was arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness after he got into a scuffle with a police officer outside a bar near Heinz Field.

“I wouldn’t just throw a party and say everything is smoothed over,” Reed says. “Whatever he would enjoy, I would do it with him. Let’s sit back and tell stories. Let’s be friends.”

Reed also thinks Boswell needs to realize the opportunity in front of him. Reed still remembers the scene in the locker room after his final game as a Steeler, in November 2010. He’d just missed a 26-yard field goal in a 39-26 loss to the Patriots. All season, Reed had been erratic. The previous month, a couple of Reed misses had cost the Steelers a win against the Ravens. Now there were about 20 reporters gathered around Reed’s locker.

One reporter asked: Did you slip on the kick?

Reed fired back: Did you watch the game?

Yeah, I was just wondering what happened.

Well, if you watched the game, you knew what happened.

Two days later the Steelers released him. Now Reed wants Boswell to know: No matter how big his contract is, he could face the same fate, if he doesn’t get his mind right.

“Have fun, man. Tune the world out,” Reed says. “If you get booed, it’s alright. I’ve been there before. I’ve had a death threat. O.K., I’m alive. I’ve been in his shoes. He’s filling my shoes now, doing something I still want to do. I can read him, and I would tell him this: I would say, Listen dude, it’s written all over your face. I know you’re young. But dude, these people that are quitting on you, they can’t kick, man. If you quit on yourself, and you’re the kicker, then your job is gone. It’s occupied by someone who wants to fill your shoes and is confident.”

If Pittsburgh sticks with Boswell in 2019 and he continues to struggle, fans might start calling for Jeff Reed again. Not that Reed minds that, either. “You don’t see a receiver dropping a ball and everyone says, Bring back Hines Ward,” Reed says. “You don’t see Ben throw a few interceptions and everyone say, Let’s bring back Tommy Maddox. But when a kicker messes up? It’s: Bring back Jeff Reed. At 40 years old. Can I still kick? Yeah. I don’t train for that, but I can kick, though.”

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