Virtually every place kicker who has been in the NFL can relate to what Brett Conway was going through Sunday evening at FedEx Field.
The Washington Redskins believed their season was on the line, and Conway was doing his part to turn a would-be win over the New York Giants into a calamitous loss. His solid season in his first year as a full-time NFL kicker was coming undone. He had connected on two field goals but had missed three others--from 38, 50 and 27 yards. The two misfires on the short attempts were his first misses of the season from inside 50 yards, and Conway received an earful on the sideline from Coach Norv Turner.
So when the Redskins called time out with 25 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, the pressure was on Conway. The Redskins had a seven-point lead, and Conway had a 37-yard field goal to try to seal the victory. Conway said later he believed his job, as well as the outcome of the game and the course of the Redskins' season, was at stake.
The story had a happy ending for Conway and the Redskins. He connected on the field goal to apply the finishing touches to a 23-13 triumph that put the Redskins alone in first place in the NFC East, and later he could breathe a sigh of relief that his "horrible"--as Turner put it--performance earlier in the day hadn't cost his team the game.
"I'm just glad I made that last one and we won," Conway said.
Former Redskins and University of Maryland place kicker Jess Atkinson said yesterday he knew precisely what Conway was feeling Sunday.
"You can get ready for it," said Atkinson, who reportedly is the top choice for the sports anchor job at Channel 9. "You can think about it all you want. But until you go through it, you don't really know. You know what's happened earlier. It's pressure not to let the team down. That's tougher than standing on the sideline all day, not doing anything, and then coming out and trying to kick one with the game on the line. The lesson every kicker has to learn is that the only kick that's important is the next one. You wonder how long it will be until you get your next chance."
Place kickers are the football equivalent of closers in baseball. Theirs are all-or-nothing jobs. Most of their teammates don't understand what they do. They can do nothing for an entire game while their teammates battle and sweat, and then what they do often is the difference between winning and losing. The jobs can be among the loneliest in sports, and among the toughest mentally.
Conway rarely lacks confidence but admitted it was "tough" to be confident on his final kick Sunday. He said he didn't think about missing the kick or losing his job once he took the field, but added: "In reality, you know that's there."
But once he struck the ball, Conway said, all the doubts were gone. He knew it was good.
Atkinson said: "Did you see how he reacted when he made it? That tells you that you can't really get the earlier ones out of your mind. Any kicker who's been around has seen both sides of it. The worst part of it is letting your teammates down. They're looking at you like, 'Dude, it's not that tough. It's kicking a ball. Even I could make it once in a while.' You know what's in front of you if you miss--a very quiet locker room, with guys sitting around listening to you explain how you screwed up."
Turner said yesterday he was "surprised" that Conway had struggled so much earlier in the game. Conway has been one of the Redskins' most pleasant surprises since winning the place kicking job in training camp from Cary Blanchard and Jeff Hall. He has made 15 of 22 field goal attempts even with Sunday's misadventures and has demonstrated why the Green Bay Packers used a third-round pick on him in the 1997 draft.
"He's been awfully, awfully consistent this season," Turner said. "In my mind, making that last kick was a big thing for him. He drilled it. He hit it with great confidence. That's big for young players. You're going to hit roadblocks at some point, and how you get through them, that's the key to becoming a good player in this league."
Most NFL head coaches have little patience or understanding for place kickers. Told that Conway was thinking his job was on the line before Sunday's final kick, Turner took a whatever-it-takes approach.
"I don't know what helps guys focus in," Turner said. "That's what you have to do. You have to focus. There are 44 other guys on the sideline counting on you to do your job. Kickers are like any other player: They have a job to do, and confidence is part of it. I expect them to make every kick just like I expect a quarterback to make every throw, while understanding that's probably not realistic. You just try not to put people in positions where they're going to lose confidence."
Turner actually took a risk by trying the final kick at all. The Giants didn't have any timeouts and had practically the length of the field to go for a tying touchdown. They probably had a better chance of tying the game by blocking a kick and returning it for a touchdown than they would have had with their offense on the field if the Redskins had run another play and turned the ball over on downs.
But he wanted to get the game over with, and he ended up doing Conway a big favor.
"For him to be able to do what he did, that built not only his confidence but the confidence the other guys on the team have in him," said Atkinson, who is a television sportscaster in Providence, R.I.
" . . . No other person in that stadium, from the fans to Norv Turner, had any idea if he was going to make it. And with the Redskins this season, there's so much riding on it. There's just not much margin for error."
And what about Conway being berated by Turner on the sideline? Atkinson thought back to his Giants days, and said: "Until you've been yelled at by Bill Parcells, you haven't been yelled at. He enjoys yelling at kickers."