By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 10:04 PM
PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh Steelers place kicker Shaun Suisham knows there's a lot riding on one simple swing of his leg. If all goes well, it can win games. But if just one small detail is off - the timing, his footing, the angle of the ball - it can cost people jobs. Usually, he's learned, his own.
But Suisham, who's gone from unemployment to the NFL playoffs in the past two months, isn't spending too much time envisioning a scenario in which his leg decides which team advances this weekend to the AFC championship game.
"Less is more," he said. "The art of kicking is simple. It's not easy, but it's a simple skill. And I try not over-complicate one kick."
The Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens split their two meetings this year. Both games were decided by just three points. During the regular season, the Steelers allowed the fewest points in the NFL, and the Ravens allowed the third-fewest. So it's not difficult to envision Saturday's heated grudge match between the division rivals coming down to Suisham's leg, which suddenly is among the most dependable still alive in these playoffs.
Suisham, 29, was released by the Washington Redskins on Dec. 8, 2009. It took him more than 11 months to find steady kicking work. After several teams passed on his services, Suisham was 14 of 15 in field goal attempts, including 8 of 9 from 40 yards or more, in the Steelers' final seven games of the season. He had connected on 15 straight from 40 to 49 before missing a 41-yarder against Carolina in Week 16.
"He's banged just about every kick we sent him out there to hit, and it starts there," Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin said. "But not only that, he has a can-do attitude. He is a pleasant teammate. He has endeared himself to his teammates because of it. He doesn't bat an eye when you ask him to do some special things, whether it's kickoffs and spreading the ball around or lobs; he has just been a pro. He has been a good addition to us."
Suisham, an Ontario native, doesn't feel like he's in a special zone. He says, in fact, he's kicking the same way he did in 2009, when the Redskins gave up on him.
Suisham had to shoulder much of the blame for the Redskins' 33-30 overtime loss to New Orleans on Dec. 6, 2009. He nailed his first three field goals in that game, but missed a 23-yard attempt late in regulation that might have helped Washington avoid overtime entirely.
It was only Suisham's third miss of the year, but there was no saving his job. The Redskins released him two days later, ending his four-season run as Washington's place kicker. Suisham was 18 of 21 kicking in 2009. By contrast, his replacement, Graham Gano was 24 of 35 in 2010.
Suisham said he was shocked when the Redskins cut him because he felt he was having a good season.'A harsh reality'
After a steady run in Washington, Suisham was sent on a wandering, nomadic journey familiar to many kickers. He finished the year with the Dallas Cowboys - he was a disappointing 3 of 5 on field goal attempts in the playoffs last year - and began searching for a job in the offseason. He spent time with the Cleveland Browns and a few days in training camp with the St. Louis Rams, but much of the past year has involved waiting for his phone to ring.
Few positions in sports offer less job security than an NFL place kicker's, and Suisham was suddenly a part of the group entirely dependent on fickle coaches eager to make a midseason change.
"It's one of those things where you find yourself on the outside looking in," Suisham said. "You need an opportunity to arise and until that happens, you're just sitting at home."
Suisham had sold his Virginia home and moved to Greenville, Ohio, to be closer to his wife's family. He kicked a couple of times a week on local fields and worked his way down a honey-do chore list. Once the season began, he tried to keep busy on Sundays. As long as he felt he was able to play football, he wasn't eager to watch it.
"To find yourself at home, it's a harsh reality," Suisham said, "and it's not always easy to deal with. I found it easier just to avoid watching games."
There was a tryout in New England, another with the New York Giants and yet another in San Diego. For one reason or another, Suisham's services weren't needed.
Then on Nov. 1, Suisham's mother-in-law, Gloria Croley, died of a heart attack, and Suisham slowly began to understand the trials he'd faced in the previous year. If Washington hadn't released him, he wouldn't have moved to Ohio. "My wife wouldn't have had that time with her mother, my daughter wouldn't have had that time with her grandmother," Suisham said.
"Looking back on things, I'm so grateful and I wouldn't change a thing," he added. "I believe that God has a plan and it's mapped out for us. I just don't have the foresight to understand it all."Earning his place
Suisham had a tryout the following week in Detroit and performed terribly - another blessing, he figures, because it meant he was still looking for work a week later when the Steelers finally gave up on their kicker.
Jeff Reed had one of the NFL's few stable kicking jobs. He'd made 83 percent of his field goal attempts in his previous eight seasons with the Steelers. He was the team's second all-time leading scorer and accounted for eight points in Pittsburgh's 27-23 win over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII. He was among the team's most popular players. But Reed had missed seven of 22 attempts in 2010 and the Steelers could no longer depend on him.
Suisham had calls that week from Cincinnati and San Francisco, but he knew Pittsburgh was the best opportunity. And he's taking full advantage of it. In his second game with the Steelers, he kicked a 41-yard game-winning field goal to give Pittsburgh a 19-16 win over Buffalo. It was his fourth field goal of the game and helped the Steelers close the year winning six of their final seven games.
"A kicker can never take anything for granted," he said. "You have to continue to earn your place and produce. When you're outside looking in, it changes your perspective a little more, just how special it is, especially with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coming in here has really renewed my sense of enjoyment for the game. That's been really refreshing for me."
He has no assurances beyond the playoffs, but Suisham hopes that his strong performance down the stretch will ensure that he doesn't have to spend next offseason waiting for the phone to ring.
"It'd be nice to settle down with a team again and be done with that circuit," he said. "But I also know that it's just a part of the job and kind of goes with the territory."