It's likely the Redskins' season will come down to the right foot of 24-year-old Brett Conway. That's a rough deal. But there it is. A playoff spot may be decided by a young player in a big slump.
What's at stake? Coach Norv Turner's job. The future of his assistants, including special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel. Dan Snyder's $800 million investment. All riding on Conway's loose cannon of a kicking leg. "A whole bunch of people's lives and careers are on the fence," McDaniel said.
Right now, Conway isn't just in a slump. He's in a nightmare. If you can miss field goals from 28 and 27 yards, you can miss from anywhere. What he needs is help. But where do you get it?
To understand a flummoxed kicker, don't ask NFL people. Few grasp this bizarre breed. What's more alien than a man who kicks a football as if it were a soccer ball? So, where do you turn?
Oddly enough, perhaps to a sport that seems as far removed from football as possible: golf. Any hacker who's ever had the shanks or the snap-hooks knows just what Conway is enduring. We know all the symptoms. Conway is in that awful place where small flaws in technique lead to self-inflicted mind games. And that leads to unbelievably humiliating failures.
How do you miss kicks that are not much longer than an extra point? Ask any golfer. How do you miss a one-foot putt? Or smother-hook a drive so it doesn't reach the front tee? It's the nature of the beast. And the beast has Conway.
Few motions in sport are more alike than the golf swing and the soccer-style field goal kick. The parallels are so strong that golf teacher Rick Smith, who works on Jack Nicklaus's swing, did a TV program on the similarities with NFL kicker Eddie Murray.
"Even the common mistakes in the golf swing and field goal kicking are the same," Smith said yesterday.
PGA teachers often need to give advice over the phone without seeing their students swing. Luckily, in golf, and in kicking, too, the pattern of the mistakes often identifies the problem. For example, in the last month, Conway has hooked three kicks left, one a smother-hook. Once, he was far right. Twice, under pressure, he played for a draw only to double-cross himself, by push-slicing the ball a couple of feet wide to the right.
"If you were describing a pro golfer who was hitting both hooks to the left and also blocking it dead right, there wouldn't be much question what the problem was," Smith said.
The Redskins and Conway can take what follows with a grain of salt. But two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Nicklaus all seek Smith's advice. Ironically, the kicker the Redskins would likely pick up if they cut Conway would be--ironic drum roll, please--Eddie Murray.
"Conway probably isn't choking. He sounds like somebody with a technical problem," Smith said. "He's 'over-drawing' the ball--hooking it too much. He's coming too much from the inside, then his foot snaps over [too much]."
Countless golfers know this syndrome. One day, you hook one. Instinctively, to correct the mistake--to keep the ball from going left--you hit more toward the right. "It feels correct, but it's exactly backward," said Smith.
The more you subconsciously aim right, the more your arms--or in the case of a kicker, your leg--separates from your body. In both cases, instead of the whole body working together, with the torso controling the motion and whipping the kicking leg through the ball, suddenly the leg has a mind of its own. It's the boss, not the body.
If your timing is a hair quick, you get a hook. A hair slow and you block it right. Sometimes, you luck out and it goes straight. "The ball can go anywhere," said Smith. "You're a loose cannon ready to go off--hook it left or block it right."
As any golfer knows, bad technique leads to bad shots. That leads to lost confidence, which leads to worry. And worry is just one step from fear--the ultimate enemy in both golf and kicking.
"For five years, Tom Watson was the best short putter that our statistics ever found," said Dave Pelz, perhaps the most renowned short-game teacher in golf and another believer in the golf/kicking analogy. "Now, he can't make one to save his life. The brighter you are, the more susceptible you are to worry, which leads to fear. Then it snowballs." Unfortunately, Conway is smart. Could he get a lobotomy by Sunday?
Once, pro Beth Daniels was so scared of one-foot putts that she would flinch in mid-stroke and miss gimmes repeatedly. It took Pelz six months to rehab her. Conway only has six days between games. "If you're scared as you finish your backswing--in golf or kicking--you're dead," said Pelz, adding, "when you have a flaw, you need to fix it fast, before it gets ingrained."
Pelz suggests that Conway look at films of his best kicks, over and over, as golfers do. "Your subconscious incorporates what it sees." Watch film. Kick a few. Watch. Kick. Back and forth. Each reinforces the other and builds confidence. That's the golf method.
Unfortunately, "if you fix the wrong thing, you just get worse and you may never get better," admits Pelz. "Late in their careers, that's what happened to Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan."
Conway is a fascinating, extreme case. After success at Penn State, he fell apart in a head-to-head kicking competition for a job with the Packers. He arrived here with a "fragile psyche" reputation, which he had dispelled until recently. As an extra twist, consider the Win Now pressure of the Snyder regime. The owner's kick-in-the-rear style may have motivated the team. Turner and veterans can take it. But what of Conway? Will he get Snyderized?
The right thing to do is stick with Conway and fix him. Even call Smith for that video. "Remember, Brett won two games for us this year," McDaniel said. "He's a talent. If he hits a big one, he might not miss again the rest of the year."
If Conway butchers another big one, he may not miss again all year, either. Because he might not get another chance.