Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed two field goals against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon and he needed the help of the right goal post to land an extra point that dinged off the post and went in. The kid with the big leg and the Pro Bowl trip last year has lost his confidence and he had better get it back soon.
As a former all-conference high school kicker, I can attest to the mental part of the place kicker’s world. The physical part is easy. You set up the same way and try to strike the ball with the same motion and follow-through every time. It becomes a rote memory thing. The less you think, the better you tend to kick. It just comes easy.
Problems arise when a kicker misses a kick or doesn’t strike the ball well on kickoffs. Now, he begins to think about the physical part. Did I set up properly? Am I striking the ball cleanly and in the sweet spot? Did the wind affect the path of the ball? What am I doing wrong?
These questions are poison to a kicker. When the mental questions impact the physical, kickers tend to make minor adjustments, instead of relying on what got them there in the first place. Perhaps they take a half step further to the right or left; maybe change their path to the ball; or, in some cases, they just alter their kicking motion.
Stop thinking so much!
Cundiff replaced a Ravens Ring of Honor legend in Matt Stover. He was Mr. Automatic, Mr. Consistency, Mr. Reliable. The guy had a lot of confidence and made a ton of kicks for this organization. As he aged and the kids behind him on the depth chart were kicking further than was, he saw that his confidence and ability to kick the ball straight were what won him the job year after year.
Eventually, the Ravens made a move to get younger and stronger on kickoffs. Enter Cundiff whose job it was to lose. He earned it and became very consistent, automatic and reliable on his way to his first Pro Bowl last year.
In recent weeks, however, Cundiff has driven the ball not as far on kickoffs. His PATs aren’t as straight-down-the-middle as before. He has missed some kicks with a field goal percentage lower than 80 percent. The look on his face right now is not one of a confident kicker. He seems dejected and frustrated. All kickers go through this. He’s been through rough patches before in Dallas and early on in Baltimore, so he knows how to get out of this mess.
The good kickers know how to stop thinking and get back to just swinging that leg. The ones who over-analyze and can’t get past the last bad kick can be out of the game altogether within weeks. It’s like Keanu Reeve’s character Shane Falco in the movie The Replacements saying he feared quicksand because the more you struggle to get out, the more you sink.
Cundiff strikes me as the kind of kicker who has to be in some type of rhythm to stay consistent. Last season, everything went well and his confidence fed off those little victories and game-winning kicks. Success bred success, all the way to Hawaii.
I am no kicking coach guru or know-it-all onlooker, but my simple advice to Billy Cundiff is: Forget the last kick and just go out there and kick the ball. Don’t think; just boot that thing as hard as you can.
When Cundiff gets back to basics, the field goal percentage will rise, as will his confidence and his chances of hitting that game-winner in a playoff game or the Super Bowl.
IN OTHER MENTAL KICKER NEWS:
The mental part of kicking is an art form for some coaches. Typically, the opposing coach calls a timeout to “ice” the opposing kicker in a critical game-winning or game-tying situation. The idea is to get into the opposing kickers head and make him over-think the gravity of the kick and lose focus.
During Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals in Tempe, icing was effective but with a goofy twist. With about 7 seconds left on the clock and the game tied at 13, Dallas kicker Dan Bailey struck a 49-yard field goal for an apparent game-winner.
However, he had to re-kick it because his head coach, Jason Garrett, had called a time out as he swung his leg. After the timeout, Bailey missed the re-kick short and to the left, leading to overtime and an eventual Dallas loss.
After the game, Bailey took responsibility for missing the second kick, saying, “We called the timeout, but that is my job to regroup and make the next one. I didn’t do that. No excuses. I should have made it despite the circumstances."
While Jason Garrett’s kicker didn’t throw him under the team bus and the Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt wryly said in his presser, “I was glad they iced their kicker so I didn’t have to."
In the end, mind games work on kickers. The good ones know how to rebound and forget. Short memories and gaining confidence with the next kick is what works.