Redskins’ Billy Cundiff goes from despair to redemption with one swing of his leg

September 30, 2012

With his team down by a point and the clock quickly ticking down, Billy Cundiff walked up the sideline, keeping pace with the offense that moved down the field in chunks against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“One more chance,” he thought. “That’s all I need.”

Having missed three field goals to that point, not only had Cundiff cost the Washington Redskins nine points and possibly the game, but he also faced the strong likelihood that he had cost himself his job.

But given a shot at redemption, Cundiff capitalized and made a 41-yard kick with three seconds left on the clock, giving the Redskins a 24-22 victory. The successful kick likely kept Cundiff in a Redskins jersey for a while longer, and kept the team from falling to 1-3 as it prepares to host undefeated Atlanta on Sunday.

“It was big, it was really big,” Cundiff said. “As you look around, it’s very disappointing to know that in the end, you look at the scoreboard, and if we’re down by one, and I missed kicks, I could’ve made the difference. That’s a really tough pill to swallow because these guys work really hard. I get very few chances, but I’ve got to make sure that if it comes down to the very end like it did, I’ve got to capitalize on it.”

Signed just before the start of the season to end long-standing inconsistencies in the Redskins’ kicking game, Cundiff had seen Tampa Bay place kicker Connor Barth — who in the first half nailed field goal attempts of 50 and 57 yards — make a 47-yarder with 1 minute 42 seconds left to give the Buccaneers a 22-21 lead.

Cundiff, meanwhile, had misses from 41 (wide right), 57 (short) and 31 (wide right) yards, and needed a heroic effort from quarterback Robert Griffin III and the offense for him to have a chance to redeem himself.

Griffin delivered, leading a seven-play, 56-yard no-huddle drive in 99 seconds, moving the ball to Tampa Bay’s 24-yard line without calling a timeout.

“Everybody was looking at me, and maybe they were lying to themselves, but at least they did a good job outwardly of saying, ‘We trust you. We know you’re going to make this one.’ I knew for me, if I could just get that chance, no matter how bad I kicked earlier in the game, I would make it.”

Cundiff trotted onto the field. Eric Snow sent a perfect snap back to holder Sav Rocca, who got the ball down on time and in the right spot, and the kicker booted the ball through the uprights for the 41-yard game winner.

“That’s what an NFL kicker is supposed to do: make them in the clutch,” Barth said of Cundiff. “I’m happy for him as a fellow kicker. You have to give Washington credit, and they put it in when it counts.”

Cundiff’s kick kept him from posting the worst outing by a Redskins kicker in recent history. Not since Sept. 20, 1998, when David Akers went 0 for 2 in a loss to Seattle had a Redskins place kicker missed on all of his field goal attempts. Only once since then has a Washington kicker missed three field goals in a single game: Brett Conway went 3 for 6 in a 1999 win over the Giants.

The last time a Redskins kicker missed multiple field goals in the same game was a 1-for-3 outing by Graham Gano in Week 14 of the 2010 season. Coincidentally, that game also came against Tampa Bay, and Washington fell 17-16.

Cundiff managed to push through the mental anguish he created for himself earlier in the game. “I was just hoping he could keep his focus after he missed the last one,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “I told him it was going to come down to the game-winner, and it did. He did a great job of concentrating and obviously, he made it.”

When the Redskins pulled the surprise move of releasing preseason competitors Neil Rackers and Gano on Aug. 27 and 28, respectively, and signed Cundiff without having him compete for the job, they believed they were getting a veteran kicker with a strong leg and the accuracy that they had long sought.

It mattered not that Cundiff had missed a 32-yard field goal attempt in the final minute of the Baltimore Ravens’ 23-20 loss at New England in last season’s AFC title game, or that Baltimore cut Cundiff during the preseason in favor of rookie Justin Tucker. The Redskins considered Cundiff more effective than Gano, who had demonstrated his leg strength by hitting a franchise-record 59-yard field goal in 2011.

Through three games, Cundiff had been in just one real pressure situation. But the 62-yard attempt that would have forced overtime against St. Louis was a long shot, and Cundiff’s kick landed well short of the uprights. Washington lost, 31-28.

Cundiff had made the other five field goals he attempted on the season. But his consistency vanished against Tampa Bay.

Cundiff said his timing was off on the first attempt. Without a training camp or preseason to work with Rocca and Snow, who was signed in Week 2 after Nick Sundberg broke his arm, Cundiff said he is still learning his fellow specialists’ rhythm.

Cundiff didn’t feel awful about the second miss – the 57-yarder – because his career-long is 56 yards and the attempt was dead center, but fell short by about three yards.

The kicker did beat himself up over the miss from 31 yards out, however. On that attempt, the Redskins looked to extend a 21-13 lead less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.

“That was a complete mental error,” Cundiff said of the kick that sailed wide left. “That’s one that at the end of the season, I’m going to look back and be really disappointed that I let that one slip by.”

Despite the three misses, Redskins players say they still did trust Cundiff.

“He’s a great field goal kicker, and he’s done exceptionally well his whole career,” said wide receiver Santana Moss. “It could happen to anybody. . . . But like we always say, you get another opportunity, you make up for it, and he made up for it.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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