By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006
Had the ball not curled back inside the upright and plopped over the crossbar, Nick Novak expected to be unemployed today. Missing one potential game-winning kick was damaging enough for a vagabond specialist, but missing two in the same wild game against the Washington Redskins' chief rival with the season on the line would have surely sent Novak scurrying for work.
Too much had already gone bizarrely in Washington's favor, from Cowboys inexplicably falling down with no Redskins in sight, to their star receiver, Terrell Owens, dropping sure touchdown passes to the most accurate place kicker in NFL history, Mike Vanderjagt, getting a chip shot blocked in the dying seconds. That block, by veteran Troy Vincent, signed as a free agent just three weeks ago, was scooped up by safety Sean Taylor and returned to midfield, and a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Taylor's run gave Novak, a Maryland product, another chance to end this 19-19 affair with no time on the clock.
Mere minutes earlier, Novak, who was signed as a free agent a month ago after veteran John Hall was placed on injured reserve, had missed wide right from 49 yards. Now, he was kicking from 47 yards. Again, the ball headed outside of the upright, but this time it sliced back to the left, sailing over the intersection of the upright and crossbar to send 90,250 fans into hysterics and a cascade of Redskins sprinting wildly all over the field to celebrate a 22-19 victory that snapped a three-game slump and gave them something to play for in the second half of the season.
"It's better than anything in my entire life," said Novak, 25, who went to high school in Charlottesville. "It's a dream to hit the game winner, and to get that second chance after I thought I was going to be the most hated guy in Washington for a second."
Such is the plight of a kicker. With 35 seconds remaining Sunday, Novak was at an all-time low after what at the time was his third miss in four field goal attempts. An imminent return to his parents' home in Indiana -- they are professors at Purdue -- to practice kicks with the neighborhood kids seemed likely, while waiting for that next call from an NFL team. There would be -- hopefully -- more kicking competitions down the line, maybe even a stint in NFL Europe to remain on the scouting radar.
Then came unquestionably the highlight of his two-year career, much more rewarding than the game-winning, 39-yard kick that beat Seattle last year during Novak's first stint in Washington with Hall injured. It was all a whirlwind. Novak began his day talking to Vanderjagt during pregame warmups about his tenuous job security -- "He said, 'I'm trying to keep a job' " Vanderjagt said -- to getting a congratulatory call on his cellphone during the locker-room celebration from current Maryland place kicker Dan Ennis, who nailed a game-winning field goal at Clemson on Saturday.
"Not many words can describe how I feel right now," Novak said.
On his first game-winning attempt Sunday, Novak knew instantly he was off. He has been missing from the left hash marks recently but the Redskins were unable to get the ball lined up in the middle or the right, and special teams coach Danny Smith has been telling Novak not to let his shoulder fly open when he strikes the ball.
Novak stopped his follow-through prematurely and "knew right away I'd pushed it" wide, he said. Most teammates left Novak alone after the miss -- "You usually want to leave them be to sort it out," long snapper Ethan Albright said -- but special teams ace Rock Cartwright met the kicker at the sideline to console him. "He was down," said Cartwright, who pushed Smith to sign Novak after Hall got hurt, "but at the same time, I told him there's nothing you can do about it, that I've got all the faith in the world in him."
With the Cowboys driving, Novak headed directly to the net into which he practices kicks, and expected Vanderjagt to end the game. But when he heard a second thud after the one in which the kicker's foot meets the ball, Novak realized it had been blocked. Vincent, inserted into the kick-blocking unit only Saturday night, had found a crevice and got his fingers on the ball, and Taylor alertly snatched it up and began a powerful and creative romp up the field.
"I saw the ball and tried to make a play," said Vincent, who went unblocked.
The face-mask penalty on guard Kyle Kosier put the ball on the 29, and Novak ran onto the field. He had no idea how much time remained, and was not sure of the rule that forbids a game from ending on a defensive penalty, but followed the rest of the kicking unit to the field. The kicker repeated to himself to keep his head down all the way, to follow through completely and to keep his shoulder in.
"I just kept my head down and trusted myself," Novak said.
As his right foot met the ball, Novak could feel it come off his toe, which would cause the ball to swerve wide right, then, in all likelihood, sweep back left. "I don't know if that right side of the stadium all started blowing at the same time, but it barely came back," Novak said.
Players and coached embraced Novak on the field, and enveloped him. Linebacker Marcus Washington walked through the locker room shouting, "Nick Novak is a Cowboy killer," and the kicker knew that come today, he would be welcome back at Redskins Park to work another seven days, if nothing more. "I don't know what my future is," Novak said, "and making that kick solidifies myself for at least another week I hope."