Being a kicker in the NFL is not an easy job. Basically the only time anyone cares about what you spend countless hours practicing is when you're suddenly thrown into an incredibly high-pressure situation after having been just standing around for 40 minutes or so.
Additionally, you're half the size and a fifth as athletic as everyone else on the team (except the punter, and everyone always loves the punter), so you've got that working against you. Finally, you're never going to get as much credit as you will blame. All in all, it's a tough gig.
The one good thing about being a kicker is that it's virtually impossible to ever be one of the "main" reasons your team lost a football game. You're just not on the field enough for that to happen. Sure, kickers will miss potential game winners and people will be upset, but the fact is that a team requiring a game-winning field goal is a team that left a bunch of other (perhaps better) opportunities on the field on multiple plays. As a kicker, you're kinda / sorta off the hook. No one ever said, "We would've won if we had even an average kicker out there."
(Side note, I really enjoyed this nail-biter of a game, so if it seems like I didn't at any point in this column, don't worry about that. I had a blast watching this game.)
I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever seen anything like Sunday. Oh, don't get me wrong, I have plenty of opinions about the game outside of Cairo Santos (Knile Davis, the defense, the offensive line, more double tight ends, Andy Reid's incomprehensible choice to punt near the end of the second half, Travis Kelce the being a beast, etc.), and I'll try to address some of them.
But today, for the first time ever, it's all about the kicker. Today, I can say with a great deal of confidence a phrase that has never been said before: that game was lost in large part because of the kicker.
If you give Kansas City an average kicker, that game ends in favor of the Chiefs. Cairo Santos was one of the primary reasons that game is now a "moral victory" for a team devastated by injuries instead of a GIGANTIC win for a team desperate for one.
Let's go first to the third quarter. The Chiefs have managed to patch together a 10 minute (TEN MINUTE) drive out of a balanced offense, a little luck, and basically some combination of hope and air. A terrible penalty and sack have taken the Chiefs backward from the 4-yard line (you can't compete with Super Bowl contenders if you leave points on the field from inside the five. You just can't). Welp, still a nice long drive that'll end in three points, right?
Kick sails wide. I don't even remember which direction wide, as I was looking at a different computer screen to check on my fantasy team when it happened (because it was a freaking 37-yard field goal and those are SUPPOSED TO BE AUTOMATIC WHEN YOU'RE A PROFESSIONAL KICKER) and there's absolutely no way I'm going to re-watch that play. You know, because it was a freaking 37-yard field goal and those are...
I'm OK, really. Anyway, back to writing about the debacle that is currently taking place at kicker.
So Santos (you know, the cold-blooded, huge-legged crusher who "never flinched" during the kicking offseason competition) misses what is supposed to be a gimme. Now the Chiefs are down 21-10. The offense suffers a crushing blow (football is one of the sports where emotions actually matter) after the kind of clock-eating, ground-chewing, make-Manning-sit-around drive you WANT when you play Denver.
The entire complexion of the game changes with that miss. Of course, I understand the concept of the Butterfly Effect and we can't just assume the rest of the game goes the same way. But the defense (which played a HECK of a game without two of its best three players, by the way) forced the Broncos to punt the next drive. The offense moves down the field and scores a touchdown (including an unbelievable catch by Anthony Fasano on the drive after a spectacular read and nearly-as-spectacularly-bad throw by Alex Smith).
If Santos had made that kick, the Chiefs have got a shot at a tied ball game with a 2-point conversion on a day the offensive line was winning most of the short-yardage battles (except, you know, one, but that hadn't happened yet so I'm conveniently ignoring it). Think of how fired up the offense would be on that 2-point conversion. It's way more likely than not they punch it in. And NOW we have a tied ball game.
Let's move forward to the ensuing kickoff (you know, the one where the Chiefs were behind 17-21 when the game should have been tied). Let's undo the magic we just did (the magic of a competent NFL kicker who hits 37-yard field goals, that is) and bring us back to the real life score. The offense had just brought the team within four and things are looking up. What the Chiefs need is one of those patented Mile High kickoffs where the ball sails out the end zone, followed by a punt.
Instead, what we got was... was...
Man, I keep seeing it over and over. A horrifyingly short (remember that horribly weak leg of Ryan Succop?) kick that not only bounces at the five right into the returner's hands, but a LINE DRIVE kick that leaves the coverage unit with no chance. Here's the returner as he catches the ball.
Now what is that picture lacking? Oh, right, players in white and red. And in case you think those guys were about to run on screen, they weren't. Chiefs players weren't even CLOSE. There was absolutely no doubt from the second the returner caught the ball that this would be a good return. Ugh.
Of course, you all know what happened. The return goes to the Chiefs 46-yard-line, and the defense is put in a horrendous position. They manage to somehow hold on with only a field goal given up, and the Chiefs get the ball back down seven with a couple minutes to go.
Look, there were other chances to win that game. The Chiefs gave away a few CRUCIAL opportunities to steal a win on a day they absolutely went toe-to-toe with Denver.
But if you change those two plays (the field goal and the kickoff), the Chiefs have a fantastic chance to be a team that's all tied up going for the win on the road instead of a desperate team down a TD fighting for its life. Maybe, just maybe, that makes the difference.
I understand football is a business. I understand that choosing Santos over Succop was a financial move. But good Lord, can't the Chiefs at least choose a minimum-salaried kicker who can make field goals under 40 yards? Or kick the ball to the back of the end zone like 75 percent of kickers in the NFL can do these days? Is that seriously too much to ask?
Cutting costs is only going to get approval from the fans if there's an end goal in sight. And right now the Chiefs are sitting with plenty of cap room ... and a "2" in the L column where a "1" should be.
There are a lot of factors that go into a loss, and yesterday was no exception. But I have never seen a kicker play a more direct role in losing a football game than I saw Sunday.
I always hope to see history when I watch the Chiefs play. That just wasn't what I had in mind. I'm now going to burn down every building in my town that's has even a hint of orange on it.