As Falcons fans know all too well, the decision at kicker is one of the most important decisions that coaches and team officials can make. How many games were Falcons fans on pins and needles when the kicker came out for a chip shot field goal? It felt like college or even high school football, where it was maybe a 50/50 shot at best to make the 3 points. Not only did Jason Elam miss a ton of easy kicks, but most all of them were clutch kicks that could have definitely made a difference in the game. Even though it may have been a stretch to say the Birds would’ve made the playoffs with some of the made field goals, it sure would’ve been nice to find out.
After a hall of fame career in Denver and having a very good first year with the hometown Falcons, Elam certainly didn’t go out the way he planned. The Falcons kicker probably set a pretty gloomy omen when he missed two field goals out of four and an extra point in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins in the Dome. Most hoped it was just a fluke and he would get it corrected. That certainly turned out not to be the case. After not being called on much in the next 5 games and going 2 for 2, the wheels fell off again in a critical game in New Orleans. Elam missed two critical field goals again that well could have been the difference against the undefeated Saints. Granted, there were many mistakes, least of which was Matt Ryan’s interception returned for a touchdown RIGHT BEFORE halftime. Elam went on to miss another field goal against the Panthers in which they easily could have, and quite frankly should have won that game. The biggest killer was probably when Elam missed a field goal that likely would have given the Falcons a big victory on the road in huge comeback against the New York Giants. The touchdown at the end of the game would have been a go-ahead, winning touchdown instead of sending it into overtime where they lost.
Being the upstanding guy that Coach Smith is, he gave Elam another shot to correct himself and Elam couldn’t do it when he missed another potentially catastrophic field goal against the lowly Buccaneers at home. His release came later that week. Elam did a great job to stabilize the kicker situation, at least for a year, and everyone will remember the miracle against the Bears in the Georgia Dome in 2008, but it was not the way Elam wanted to go out. The Falcons signed Matt Bryant and found a little bit better luck with him, but not too much. Bryant went on to miss 3 field goals out of 10 himself over the next 5 games. Add to that the fact that Bryant will be 35 years old when the Falcons tee it up, and you get the feeling that the Falcons finally will make a youth movement. The candidates……….
Even though Bryant was the model of consistency throughout his career (81.5% field goals made), Bryant has been showing signs of wearing down as he gets up in age. Bryant bounced around the NFL for a couple of years before finally catching on with Tampa Bay in 2005 where he was an excellent kicker for them for 4 seasons, kicking above 84% in every season except for one. In his final year with the Bucs, he made 32 out of 38 field goals but suffered a hamstring injury right before the season and the Bucs decided to go in a different direction. Bryant remained on the free agent market until the Falcons picked him up in December. He did come in and make a few key kicks, but also did miss his fair share (3) over a stretch that was so important to the franchise to break the curse of never having back-to-back winning seasons. Bryant might be the most reliable and battle tested, but he also may remind many of Jason Elam as well.
Hauschka is an interesting story and might be the sleeper in this year’s kicking competition. Only 24 years old and having actual NFL experience, where he has made 1 out of 2 field goals for the Ravens in 2008 and 9 out of 13 in 2009. Hauschka was released in November after missing a 36 yard field goal on Monday Night Football, which was his fourth miss of the year. The Falcons signed Hauschka as a free agent in 2009, possibly as insurance, but mainly for the upcoming kicker competition. The former Ravens kicker may have worked out the kinks after failing as a starter, but Hauschka also is a very unkown quantity and may get another shot at a starting position. Although he may take advantage of another big opportunity, the Falcons will likely be in the same position as the Ravens were where they expect to make a pretty deep run in the playoffs and that can’t happen with a field goal kicker who has to have growing pains again. A good model may have been set with the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, where they went with veteran John Carney to begin the season, but kept rookie Garrett Hartley on the practice squad. When Carney got hurt or started to deteriorate, Hartley was ready to step right in. If that’s the case, he will be in direct competition with rookie Garrett Lindholm for that spot.
Lindholm is the great unknown and in the class of other undrafted free agent rookies, where they will have a long, uphill battle to make the team. Lindholm’s best shot will likely be to get on the practice squad and make a run at the regular kicking position at some point. Its highly doubtful that the Falcons will go with a brand new rookie who wasn’t even drafted after last year’s struggles with Jason Elam. Lindholm might be in the best position of any of the kickers to take a stab at the position on a long-term basis. Not many rookies ever claim the kicking job outright, but if the Falcons follow the Saints plan, he seems to be in an excellent position. “Lindholm, 5-9, 190 pounds, converted 15 of 18 field goals and 43 PATs for a total of 88 points last season at Tarleton State. He hit a 64-yard field goal as time expired (third longest in NCAA history) to send his team to overtime in the first round of the FCS playoffs against Texas A&M Kingsville” (AtlantaFalcons.com).
Tough decisions lie ahead at the kicker position. Do the Falcons go with the proven vet like Bryant while developing Lindholm on the practice squad? Or do they go with someone with potential and has actually kicked in the NFL and has immense upside? Whatever decision they make, it better be a good one because it could mean the difference in a really good year and playoff run or sitting at home in January.