By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:46 AM
NASHVILLE - It is an odd existence, being a place kicker in the NFL, simultaneously part of a team and removed from it. A week's worth of practice is spent in something bordering on solitary confinement, jogging from field to field with the punter, who holds the kicks, and the long snapper, who hikes the ball. Yet when the game is to be decided, all eyes fall your way.
So Graham Gano found himself walking onto LP Field Sunday afternoon, one chance to win the game already having passed him by, another staring him directly in the face. The wind was swirling a bit. The trick: Prevent the same from happening in his head.
"I was thinking, 'You know, I still wish I could have another chance at that 52-[yarder] vs. Houston,' " Gano said.
By Sunday afternoon, that kick - a miss that came after Texans Coach Gary Kubiak iced Gano with a timeout way back on Sept. 19 - didn't matter for the Washington Redskins. What did was that Gano stepped up to the 48-yarder he faced in overtime, cleared his mind, said his prayers and drilled the kick through the uprights, the winning points in a 19-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The field goal was Gano's fourth of the day, and it rendered his misses irrelevant.
"Before I even looked up, I knew it was going in," Gano said. "It feels like kicking a pillow, really. You don't even feel it."
What Gano does feel is the instability that goes along with his profession. He is only 23, and this is his first full NFL season. He was the top college kicker in the country at Florida State in 2008, but he did not make the Baltimore Ravens the following fall, and he was cut. He kicked in the United Football League, and when the Redskins decided they had had enough of Shaun Suisham last December, they brought in Gano for the tail end of a season gone bad.
So he is kind of learning the NFL as he goes. He made all four of his field goals at the end of last season, and he is enduring something of an uneven campaign this year at just 15 of 20 coming into Sunday. In October, he missed field goals in three consecutive games. Yet Coach Mike Shanahan never publicly questioned him, and Gano remained steadfastly confident.
"I've held for a couple of the best to ever play," said Redskins punter Hunter Smith, referring to Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri and former Colt Mike Vanderjagt. "I don't know that a lot of people get it around here, in our reality, but good kickers - great kickers - miss lots of kicks. They just do. They miss game-winners. They miss kicks to push it into overtime. It just happens.
"But if you stick beside a guy, and give them some time to develop, they'll still miss kicks down the road, but what you're trying to find is someone who would be consistent 85 percent of the time. That's what we've got here. Graham is going to be really, really good."
Gano's day, though, only ended perfectly. After he made a 19-yarder in the second quarter, he lined up for a 51-yarder - with the wind - on the final play of the first half. The kick never had a chance, sailing wide left. Gano still has not converted a field goal longer than 49 yards.
"Any time a ball goes that far left, it's probably on me, how I planted," Gano said.
So, on to the next kick. He calmly made a 40-yarder in the third quarter and tied the game at 16 in the fourth with a kick from 42 yards out. Then, after the Redskins moved the ball to the Titans 27, quarterback Donovan McNabb spiked it. Gano had his first chance to win the game, and though the snap from center Nick Sundberg was low, Smith held it in place.
"That was a nasty wind," Sundberg said. "The ball was about two-thirds of the way there, and I was like, 'It's in,' and then all of a sudden it was like, 'Whoop.'" The ball died, falling well short of the crossbar.
"But we have to have a real short memory," Sundberg said. "If you start dwelling on previous things, that's when you start going downhill."
So when Gano got his next chance, he gathered himself. A devout Christian, he said he frequently talks to God before his kicks. And when the game-winner - his second in overtime this year - sailed through, he pointed directly to the sky.
"He'll be there, absolutely, one of the good ones," Smith said. "Especially for 23 years old, there aren't a lot of people like that."