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The Bengals’ kicker — yes, the kicker — belongs at the cool kids’ table

Cincinnati Bengals kicker Evan McPherson leaves the field after an upset win over the Tennessee Titans. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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Evan McPherson, the Cincinnati Bengals’ stud kicker, still has a touch of acne. If you see him outside his shoulder pads and stripes, you might think he’s the lucky rascal who won a contest to hang around real, live NFL players for a day. Maybe that’s why during the preseason he often found himself in the crosshairs of defensive end Sam Hubbard, getting all kinds of grief for having the temerity to be good enough to earn a draft spot as a place kicker.

Kickers, blech. They’re just evolved soccer players who make cameo appearances on fourth downs and point-after attempts, right? They aren’t supposed to boastfully call their shot in the waning seconds of a divisional playoff game, then strut onto the field and do exactly what they said they would do, after which their burly teammates rejoice and a star-crossed fan base releases 33 years of pent-up agony.

They aren’t supposed to have this much swag.

Which makes what McPherson did last weekend — quarterback Joe Burrow shared the legend of him saying those famous last words (“Welp, it’s time to go to the AFC championship game”) moments before he kicked the walk-off 52-yard winner against the Tennessee Titans — so scrumptious. He even turned to holder Kevin Huber before the kick sailed through, the way Stephen Curry would have whipped around before swishing one of his dagger threes.

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Imagine having a face that will get carded for at least the next 17 years and a body perfect for smedium fits and still oozing this kind of confidence.

Kickers aren’t supposed to be like McPherson (and they certainly aren’t supposed to be the focus of a 950-word column on the eve of the AFC championship game). But by the time the Bengals meet the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, there should be no more assumptions that a kicker doesn’t belong at the cool kids’ table.

Would you ever expect a kicker to run his mouth at a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end? Neither would Hubbard, probably.

“When you draft a kicker … me personally, I was giving him a hard time. Always just messing with him … just trying to throw him off, talk to him, mess with him and see if he would be rattled,” Hubbard said.

“He would talk right back to me, talking trash back and forth. And I was like: ‘Okay, this dude’s got some personality. He’s got some confidence.’ ”

Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, too, used to try to son McPherson after Cincinnati selected him in the fifth round out of Florida. But like others in the locker room, Awuzie backed off during preseason, then watched from the sidelines in the regular season opener as McPherson became the youngest player in league history to kick a game-winner, his first of four during his rookie year.

“We need him, and he’s been one of our best players,” Awuzie said. “Truly, one of our best players and most clutch players.”

Ja’Marr Chase, a 21-year-old wide receiver, might call McPherson “Lil Bro” even though the kicker is older by a year. Still, Chase has to respect his fellow rookie, whose nine field goals of at least 50 yards were just one short of the NFL record.

“His confidence is high, and our confidence is high watching him,” Chase said.

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And during a season in which one head coach allegedly called his kicker “dips---” just before lining him up like a human tee, on the opposite end of the spectrum was Bengals Coach Zac Taylor, who brought his 11-year-old son a McPherson jersey for Christmas. Following the divisional round, all of Cincinnati coveted a No. 2 jersey and snatched up every one in the team’s pro shop.

“He’s a weapon,” Taylor said in December after McPherson booted a 58-yard kick in a win over the Denver Broncos, the longest in team history.

Similar to how Burrow’s bravado defines these nouveau Bengals — he’s done with the underdog narrative, all right! — McPherson’s courage borders the edge of cockiness. He was mocked for celebrating prematurely when he thought he won the game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. The kick clanged off the upright. Still, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus, a scholar of swag himself, can appreciate that self-belief.

McManus dresses like a trendsetter in the Broncos’ locker room (he swears he was hip to Scotch & Soda before his teammates) and emotes on the sidelines the way most kickers wouldn’t dare (during a game two seasons ago he steamed when then-coach Vic Fangio wouldn’t allow him to attempt a 65-yard field goal). A good kicker can’t survive without having an ego. The job description demands it, McManus told me Thursday.

“We’re on an island out there as a kicker,” said McManus, who, along with Blair Walsh and Justin Tucker, is co-owner of that NFL record with 10 makes of at least 50 yards in a season. “Our position is so black and white. You make it or you miss it. People love you or they hate you. It’s a unique and cool position, obviously a ton of pressure. … It’s just something I really enjoy. I don’t know if Evan grew up this way, but I grew up wanting to take the final penalty kick, take the final free throws in a basketball game.”

This week, McManus hopped on a Zoom call, organized by the NFL Players Association, with collegiate kickers who might play in the league soon. He shared a few secrets, such as the quickest and easiest way to earn respect from your teammates.

“You have a chance to prove to these guys in the locker room that you’re good at your job and you’re going to help them win games,” McManus told them, “and they’ll love you.”

In other words, have swagger like McPherson.

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