ATLANTA — It was fourth-and-Super Bowl with a long way to go, but Los Angeles Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein never had a doubt about what his coach, Sean McVay, was going to do.
If Zuerlein had missed from 57 yards — a coin-flip proposition, at best, for most NFL kickers under the circumstances — the Rams would have handed prime field position to the New Orleans Saints in overtime and probably lost the NFC championship game.
A number of coaches would have probably looked at the percentages and the stakes there and punted, particularly after Zuerlein’s tying kick at the end of regulation looked dangerously close to the right upright before hooking in from 48. But with the Rams, here came “Greg the Leg,” as impervious as ever to the magnitude of the moment.
“Just one kick,” he said this week as the Rams prepared to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIII. “That one kick doesn’t make or break you as a player. It’s one kick on a journey that is your career.”
The thing is, Zuerlein lives in a world where one kick absolutely can change careers. And though it has always been a brutal job, it has never been less forgiving for kickers than right now with longer extra points putting them in peril and the unrelenting glare of social media putting their misses in a spotlight like never before.
Which makes it all the more admirable and unusual that both Zuerlein and his counterpart, Stephen Gostkowski, have played for the same franchise their entire careers without being cut, traded or otherwise made into the scapegoat.
“Any day you have a job in the NFL is a blessing, and to not have had to move and meet a whole new crop of people, I can’t say enough about the opportunity I’ve had and how blessed I am,” said the 34-year old Gostkowski, who is completing his 13th season with the Patriots. “Having seen people in my position have to play for four or five different teams in the amount of time I’ve played for one, I just thank my lucky stars.”
Of course, being good at your job over a long period of time is the most foolproof way to remain gainfully employed with an NFL team. But even that doesn’t guarantee anything, what with salary cap considerations and the potential for slumps in a discipline where the margin for error is frightfully narrow.
“Probably smaller than (a couple inches),” Zuerlein said, describing the difference between a good kick and a bad one.
Even moreso than most of their teammates, kickers are always in peril, even if they’re considered among the best in the league. Chicago cut its longtime kicker Robbie Gould in 2016 because he was coming off a bit of a down year and was owed $3 million guaranteed. That didn’t really work out for the Bears, who lost a playoff game this year on a missed field goal by Cody Parkey while Gould has made 82-of-85 since his Chicago departure. Another example, Chandler Catanzaro, was almost automatic for Arizona his first two years in the league but missed a handful of kicks in 2016 and has subsequently played for four teams in the last three seasons.
It can happen just that fast, and the fall from grace can be lonely.
“You know what it is. People either hate us or love us,” Gostkowski said. “That’s why I don’t do social media. I’m not looking to get a death threat every time I miss a field goal. I’m just not going to put myself through it.”
With the Patriots currently sitting as 3-point favorites, there is a decent chance either Gostkowski or Zuerlein will have a kick at the end of the game that could tilt the outcome one way or the other.
That’s interesting on a couple levels.
Though Gostkowski has been consistently excellent for New England with four Pro Bowl selections to show for it, his Super Bowl history has been mixed. Last year, he missed a 26-yard field goal and an extra point in the second quarter of New England’s 41-33 loss to Philadelphia. The year before that, he missed an extra point in the Patriots’ win over Atlanta but did nail two field goals.
Meanwhile, Zuerlein is playing in his first Super Bowl but has been dealing with an injury to his plant foot that he suffered while warming up in the NFC championship game. It’s not expected to be an issue — he didn’t even tell the Rams’ coaches what happened until after that game — but it has been painful enough that he hasn’t kicked at all since the 57-yarder and wasn’t expected to until Friday’s practice.
“The plant foot is important for accuracy,” Zuerlein said. “You want that to be pointed where you want the ball to go but as far as pain wise, if it hurts a little bit, whatever, If it doesn’t, great.”
At this level, though, the issues are more mental than physical. Beyond only being necessary for a handful of plays a game, all of which are important on the scoreboard, kickers essentially have to self-correct any issues when their tempo or their form gets off-kilter for whatever reason.
Gostkowski said he’s never had a kicking coach and relies in practice on instant feedback from an iPad that films all of his kicks so he can see what might have gone wrong. Zuerlein, a former soccer player who has been given nicknames like “Greg the Leg” and “Legatron” because of the prodigious distances he can kick, shies from video analysis and goes almost entirely off feel.
“The more I analyze and nitpick things, you get paralysis by analysis,” he said. “I just try to be a natural athlete and let my God-given abilities take over and not worry about little things. On game day, as long as they go in, I’m happy. During practice is when I hate myself, basically.”
For a specialty where players are forever on the knife’s edge of being indispensable or kicked to the curb, the kicker’s in Sunday’s Super Bowl have beaten the odds in a pretty profound way by staying with one team their whole careers. It would be fitting if one of them ended up with the championship on their foot.
And if that happens?
“Football games get so intense and you get so into it and get tossed out there for one play, so being able to control my emotions and maintain focus on the play instead of the outcome is what works best for me,” Gostkowski said. “When you have one job you want to think about it enough to do well but you cant overthink it. It’s not rocket science. It’s just trying to kick the ball through the uprights.”