As Neil Rackers stood alongside the fields at Redskins Park after practice recently, playing with his children and talking to his wife, he waved over Graham Gano. The other members of the Rackers family greeted Gano warmly, and Gano spent several minutes hanging out and chatting pleasantly before walking up the hill to the team’s training facility.
There is a kinship of sorts among NFL kickers, a bond forged because only those who do the job truly understand and appreciate the pressures of an occupation in which one swing of the leg can determine the outcome of a game after practically everyone else on the roster spent the day in jarring high-speed collisions.
So Rackers and Gano have crafted a friendship since the Washington Redskins signed Rackers, a 12-year NFL veteran, in April to compete with Gano, the incumbent, for the team’s place-kicking job. They spend their training camp days together, with a daily routine different than the one their teammates follow, and they talk about their craft. But they also know only one of them will be kept when the regular season arrives, and their competition is serious business to them and the Redskins.
“Because we’re away from the team so much, we get to know each other pretty well,” Gano said. “We talk every day. There’s no animosity between us. We both know we’re professionals. I’ve been doing this a while now and so has Neil. I think we both know what’s at stake and we just have to go out there and perform. When we’re on the field, it’s total business. But off the field, we’re friends.”
Rackers said he remembers how he was treated by veteran Doug Pelfrey when he was a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000 and the two were competing.
“Doug Pelfrey really taught me how to be a professional,” Rackers said. “He’d take me out to dinner numerous times during the week. He congratulated me when I got the job.”
That’s the approach he has tried to take, Rackers said, in subsequent training camp kicking competitions.
“You can compete and as soon as we step between the lines, the two of us, to go kick, we’re battling,” Rackers said. “But as soon as you step off the field, that’s over. It’s kind of like a football game. They beat the snot out of each other all game. But all the guys that played in college together meet at midfield and pray together. It’s a lot like that.”
The stakes in this competition also are high for the Redskins, who are attempting to make significant improvement in Coach Mike Shanahan’s third season. The success of a season can hinge on whether a handful of field goals are made — or missed — in big moments.
League-wide, NFL kickers connected on 82.9 percent of their field goal attempts last season, the second-best success rate in history behind the 84.5 percent accuracy achieved in 2008. Gano was at 75.6 percent, with 10 misses in his 41 field goal attempts. Five of those misses came on blocks. No other NFL kicker had more than three field goal tries blocked last season.
Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a special teams standout, said the problem was the blocking in front of Gano, not Gano’s kicking.
“That’s all on us,” Alexander said. “Nothing on Graham. Not one. I think people gave him a lot of heat last year that he didn’t deserve because of that. A lot of it was protection breakdowns, stuff that you shouldn’t be doing. And it makes him look bad.”
Danny Smith, the Redskins’ special teams coordinator, has made field goal protection a point of emphasis during this training camp, Alexander said. He said he’s confident the Redskins will emerge with a reliable kicker either way.
“They’ve both been pretty much equal right now. I know Graham is young and has a strong leg. But Rackers is right there holding his own, a veteran in the game,” he said. “Sometimes experience is a little bit better than youth. It just depends on what you like. . . . It’s a hard decision to say who we should go with right now.”
Gano said he believes he had “a pretty good year” last season.
“Minus the blocked field goals, I was 86 percent,” Gano said. “My goal is always to hit 90 percent of my field goals. . . . I feel like I was in rhythm and I haven’t really lost that going into this season.”
Gano out-kicked veteran Shayne Graham in training camp last year to keep the Redskins’ kicking job. In three seasons with the Redskins, Gano has connected on 73.8 percent of his field goals.
Rackers is a proven veteran who has an 80 percent success rate on field goals in a dozen NFL seasons with the Bengals, Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans. He connected on 32 of 38 field goal attempts last season with Houston. But he and the Texans were unable to agree on a new contract and Rackers accepted Shanahan’s offer to compete with Gano, with nothing promised.
“All he said is it’s an opportunity,” Rackers said.
Gano said he wasn’t dismayed at the Redskins’ decision to sign Rackers.
“Competition only makes you better,” Gano said. “I’m looking forward to competing against him for the rest of training camp.”
The practice-field portion of the competition has been even. Rackers made all six of his kicks during a field goal drill Saturday, while Gano missed one of his six tries, leaving each kicker 16 for 19 during training camp. Gano made field goals of 38 and 51 yards Saturday during a final drive drill for the offense, and Rackers connected from 55 yards.
The kicks that count the most probably will come during the four-game preseason that begins when the Redskins play Thursday night at Buffalo.
“You just do your job, do the best that you can,” Rackers said. “And at the end of camp, they’ll tell you who they like.”