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Kicked around: Inside football's loneliest position.

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Former Redskins great Mark Moseley, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff and the University of Maryland's Travis Baltz explain the unique mentality it takes to succeed as a kicker.

"For the young kickers now, it's tougher than ever," Moseley says. "I don't know if I could've made it today. I don't know if I'd been kept around long enough to prove myself."

Moseley's era arguably produced the most talked-about kick in the sport's history, a game-winning, last-second 63-yard field goal in 1970 by New Orleans' straight-on kicker Tom Dempsey, until then best known for succeeding despite having a clubfoot. To this day, no one in the league has kicked a field goal farther.

But the mystique surrounding that feat obscured the general unreliability of kickers in the late '60s and early '70s, when the league average for successful field goals attempts was not much above 50 percent. Most of the kickers, like Moseley, booted in a straight-on style, which presented less room for error than the emerging soccer-style approach, in which the ball came off the instep. The best of the new kicking breed was Norwegian native Jan Stenerud, whose brilliance with the Kansas City Chiefs in the '60s and '70s, before he moved on to the Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, would lead to his induction into the Hall of Fame, the only pure place kicker ever to have received the honor. Straight-on kickers found themselves sharing the stage with a burgeoning vanguard of soccer-style wunderkinds slowly pushing conventional kickers out of the game.

Moseley, who entered the league in 1970 and had a lifetime mark of 65 percent, observes: "Now, if you don't hit 85 percent or higher, you're not going to be even in the top 10 [among kickers in the league]; you might not even make a squad. ... There's no patience. They just cut people; it's rougher than ever."

In the modern game, coaches' expectations are soaring, inflated by three decades of kickers' increasing proficiency. "There are only 32 regular positions for 32 teams for guys to kick field goals, but everybody knows there are a lot more kickers than that who can kick well," says Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback who is now a football analyst for ESPN. "If you're a kicker, you're all alone. ... It still comes down to those one or two kicks in a game. And if one guy fails, there's always somebody else to take over."

The latest wave of specialists have been honing their craft since high school, beneficiaries of youth kicking camps, personal lessons and a greater understanding of the soccer-style techniques introduced in the '60s. Even middling collegiate prospects generally make more than 70 percent of their field goal attempts, while grizzled NFL outcasts await second chances that come only when established kickers are on the brink of losing their jobs.

Few observers were surprised earlier this year when a veteran kicker, the New Orleans Saints' John Carney, was cut after missing a single short kick. And, in November, Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed was quickly let go after missing a 26-yarder in a loss to New England. Shaun Suisham, the former Redskins kicker who had earlier won Cundiff's Cowboys job only to lose it himself, took over Reed's spot.

No one else on a football team -- or in major professional athletics for that matter -- is so easily disposable. A starting NFL quarterback, a prince in modern American sports, thrives for years off dreams about nothing more than his potential. For many teams, a young, interception-prone quarterback is a possible Hope diamond. Even a receiver can suffer a long spell of bad hands and at least hang on through the season. By contrast, kickers are accessories, utterly interchangeable.

Non-kickers typically express little sympathy for the kickers' odyssey. "They don't have to do the same things as other players do," Hasselbeck observes. "When a lot of team meetings are going on, I've seen those guys in the equipment room shopping online or playing cards or video games." He chuckles. "They work very hard, but you also have to remember they have a lot of time to work on nothing but their craft. They just have that one thing to do: kick. The basic feeling of guys on a team, I think, is that kickers are supposed to make their kicks."

Especially when things go wrong, chagrined coaches and announcers often refer to kickers merely by their position. After the Redskins' Gano missed what would have been a game-winning 47-yarder at the end of regulation against Tennessee, Sonny Jurgensen fumed: "He choked -- the kicker choked!" As it turned out, Gano won the game with a 48-yarder in overtime.

Moseley sounds befuddled by the modern state of kickers. "Teams think they can find kickers anywhere now," Moseley says. "I thought I had it tough."

Moseley, a late-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, went to his first training camp to discover that the Eagles' coaches had brought in more than 300 kickers to compete against him. "Some of the guys were right off the street," he remembers.


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