Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Redskins lost 17-14 to the Chicago Bears. The Redskins beat the Bears by that score. This version has been corrected.
Redskins place kicker Shayne Graham has played in the Pro Bowl. He set franchise records in Cincinnati. He ranks as the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history and didn’t miss a single field goal attempt last season. But the 33-year-old veteran also knows what it's like to go straight from training camp to the back of the league’s long unemployment line.
In his 10 seasons, Graham has been released prior to Week 1 in New Orleans, twice in Seattle, in Carolina and last preseason in Baltimore. Now he's in Washington, trying to unseat Graham Gano as the Redskins’ kicker.
“There's really no room for pride,” said Graham, a Radford, Va., native who played at Virginia Tech. “In my career, I've learned that anything can happen.”
As the Redskins prepare for their preseason opener Friday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are relatively few starting jobs up for grabs. The battle for the place-kicking job is among the most intriguing. It pits Graham and his long resume against Gano, the league's 30th-ranked kicker last year, who is entering his second full season.
“It was a good learning season,” Gano said.
Gano’s uneven performance is what earned Graham his invitation to training camp. As the Redskins’ season fell apart, Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth absorbed much of the attention. Gano’s struggles, though, were difficult to miss. He was 3 for 7 in field goal attempts in the final month of the season. The Redskins lost three of those games by three points or less.
“I kind of just want to put it behind me,” Gano said.
Gano’s foot was often the difference in winning or losing. Against Green Bay, he tied the game and later won it. He tied the game against Tennessee and won that one, as well. His fourth-quarter field goal also won the game at Jacksonville. But he missed two field goal attempts in a three-point loss to Houston. He missed one in a three-point loss to Indianapolis. He missed two in a one-point loss to Tampa Bay and missed another in a three-point loss to the New York Giants.
“I don't have a problem with the pressure,” said the 24-year-old Gano. “It’s just, I think, being consistent all the time, I’m just working on that. And I feel pretty comfortable that I’m getting there.”
Consistency is exactly what coaches are looking for. They’ll be watching Friday's game closely. Graham and Gano will alternate kicking opportunities, as they have at practice all week.
The two have worked on field goals three times since training camp began. Gano is 16 for 19 thus far, and Graham is 10 for 17. While Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and his special teams coordinator, Danny Smith, watch the kickers closely, the winner of a kicking battle isn’t usually difficult to discern by preseason’s end.
“That competition usually takes care of itself,” Shanahan said Wednesday.
Graham’s credentials are solid, even if his kicks have been spotty in practice. He played seven seasons with the Bengals and left Cincinnati as the franchise’s most accurate kicker. He signed with the Ravens last year but lost the job to Billy Cundiff. Graham then spent much of the season waiting by the phone.
He kicked for one week for the Giants when Lawrence Tynes sprained an ankle, but he didn’t find regular work until New England’s Pro Bowl kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, suffered a torn quadriceps in November and was lost for the season. In his place, Graham was 12 for 12 on field goal attempts in the final eight games of the regular season and made both of his playoff attempts. But the Patriots had Gostkowski under contract. Graham was only a temporary solution.
“I knew I wasn’t going to end up signing a long-term deal with them, but it was a chance to play and perform,” Graham said.
Despite his strong play, teams weren’t calling last month with sure-fire job offers. Instead, they wanted Graham to compete for a spot.
“I'm not someone to really be in a position to turn anything down,” Graham said. “I felt like this was a good place for me here. I just have to perform now.”
Graham and Gano are working every day to impress coaches. Gano was 0 for 3 last season on attempts of 50 or more yards. So he spent the offseason working with weights and feels better for it.
“If we do go back to kick a long one, last year I feel like I had to put a lot effort into it. This year it’s just smooth, real natural,” he said.
On Wednesday, Gano nailed a pair of 54-yarders in practice. Graham hit one, but his other attempt was low and left and bounced through the end zone.
Although the misses and makes mean something in practice, they count for everything in game situations, which means the kicking battle really heats up Friday night at FedEx Field.