The Kansas City Chiefs have just concluded their 59th season as a professional football franchise. For 27 of those seasons — from 1967 through 1993 — the Chiefs had only two placekickers: Jan Stenerud and Nick Lowery.
Stenerud represented a revolution. The first Norwegian to play in the NFL, Stenerud pioneered the soccer-style kicking that is used by all modern placekickers and was the first pure kicker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lowery simply represented excellence. Over his 14-year career with the Chiefs, he scored 1,466 points — still a franchise record — and was routinely counted as one of the best in the game.
But after Lowery left the team, the word consistency hasn’t generally been associated with Chiefs placekickers. From 1994 until Ryan Succop joined the team in 2009, only one kicker had stayed with the team longer than three seasons: longtime Miami Dolphins placekicker Pete Stoyanovich handled placekicking from 1996 into the 2000 season.
But Succop wasn’t the first young kicker the team had tried.
Lawrence Tynes had the job from 2004 through 2006 but was traded to the New York Giants in 2007. Tynes would go on to kick game-winning overtime field goals in two different NFC Championship games, sending the Giants to the Super Bowl in both 2007 and 2011.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas City, the Chiefs had drafted Justin Medlock in the fifth round. In the season opener, Medlock missed a 30-yard field goal in the first drive. He made another that day, but the Chiefs had seen enough. He was released immediately. Dave Rayner came in and lasted 10 games before giving way to 18-year veteran John Carney to finish the 2007 season.
In 2008, free agent Nick Novak didn’t last the season, either; he was replaced by Connor Barth after just six weeks.
Those two seasons represented the lowest point of a long, bad stretch of placekicking inconsistency for the Chiefs. So in 2009, the Chiefs took Ryan Succop with the last pick of the draft.
By 2014, Succop had been solid — if not great — for the Chiefs over five seasons. When training camp arrived — and with Succop due a big payday — the team brought in competition: free agent Cairo Santos. The diminutive Brazilian — who barely spoke English, and learned most of what he knew about American football by playing Madden — won the job.
While Santos got off to a rough start, eventually he became an effective (and popular) placekicker, becoming the most accurate field goal kicker in team history, making 84.8 percent of his field-goal attempts. After three seasons — particularly after Santos’ 2016 overtime kick against the Broncos in Denver doinked off the left upright and slipped in behind the right one to win the game — it seemed that the Chiefs might have finally found a long-term solution at the position.
But in 2017, Santos missed several preseason games with a groin injury. Then he was hit hard after kicking a field goal in the Week 3 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The next day, the Chiefs placed Santos on injured reserve and plucked Harrison Butker off the practice squad of the Carolina Panthers.
“I don’t know anything about this new kicker,” said Arrowhead Pride’s Joel Thorman when the move was announced, “but presumably special teams coach Dave Toub signed off on it. This one could hurt.”
Like Succop in 2009, Butker had been picked by the Panthers in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft. A native of Decatur, Georgia who attended Atlanta’s exclusive Westminster School, he is a product of Georgia Tech, from which he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering.
As a placekicker at Tech, Butker will be long remembered for two field goals in 2014 — one in the last second against Virginia Tech to win the game, and a 53-yarder against Georgia that sent the game into overtime — along with another in the final minute of the 2015 game against Florida State. Butker’s field goal tied the game, but then this happened as time expired.
But he came into the NFL with a statistical oddity: at Tech, he had been more accurate at long distances than medium distances.
Perhaps this was what had kept the Panthers from committing to him. In training camp, Butker had a tough battle against veteran kicker Graham Gano — and ultimately the Panthers couldn’t decide. They kept both Gano and Butker on the active roster for the first week of the season, apparently hoping to trade one of them. When no deal could be made, the Panthers cut Butker, held their breath and placed him on their practice squad after he cleared waivers.
But the Chiefs had been paying attention.
“He was obviously a good kicker in college,’’ Chiefs coach Andy Reid told the media after Butker had been poached from Carolina. “We liked him coming out. He’s got a strong leg. He’s a good kicker. We look forward to getting him in there and seeing how he does.”
It was a whirlwind for Butker.
“That whole week was probably the strangest week of my life,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve been in Atlanta my whole life, now I’m in Kansas City — a different part of the country. I’m so used to seeing Carolina blue and Panthers stuff — having been in Charlotte — and now it’s red, which is weird, having gone to Georgia Tech.”
Butker had been raised in an environment where such things mattered. His father (also Harrison) favors the Georgia Bulldogs, and his mother Elizabeth is a Georgia Tech fan. But both of them — along with his fiancee Isabelle and his kicking coach Jamie Kohl — flew to Kansas City for Butker’s Chiefs debut in Week 4: a Monday night game against the Washington Redskins.
It didn’t start well.
With the Chiefs trailing 10-7 at the end of the first half, Butker — just like Medlock in 2007 — missed his first field-goal; the 46-yard attempt was wide left.
But that would be it for a while.
Not only did Butker make two more field goals in that game — including the game-winning 43-yard attempt with eight seconds left — he also didn’t miss either a PAT or a field goal for the next two months. He finished the season without missing a single PAT, and made 90.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. Through two seasons with the Chiefs, he’s made 89.9 percent of his field-goal attempts — a rate that puts him in front of Santos as the most accurate in franchise history.
A miss in the 2017 postseason — a 48-yard attempt in the third quarter of the 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans that easily could have made a difference in the game — might have removed some of Butker’s luster among Chiefs fans, but most fans probably remember... uhhh... other failures in that game.
And in the 2018 postseason, Butker was perfect — including a 39-yard field goal with 11 seconds left that sent the AFC Championship into overtime.
It all recalls the nickname Andy Reid gave him after his first game as a Chief. In his postgame press conference, he took a cue from Butker’s Twitter handle @buttkicker7, and referred to him as “Buttkicker-dot-com.”
Thinking back to his time on the Panthers practice squad, Butker said he always had confidence he could succeed in the NFL.
“The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘I’m ready for this. I’m ready to be a starting kicker in the NFL. I can do this,’” he told the Journal-Constitution.
Butker might also have been fortunate to land with the Chiefs, with whom Dustin Colquitt would be holding his kicks, and special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who knows when it’s time to just get out of the way.
“Dustin is like a kicker whisperer,” Toub told the media after Butker’s first game. “He speaks that language. He talks, and he knows exactly what went wrong when [the placekicker] misses. He knows a lot more than I know. I just know getting the ball through the uprights is good, but Dustin... he knows the finer points [from] doing it so long as a veteran, and [as] one of the best holders in the league. He knows all the finer points to kicking.”
According to USA Today’s story on the 2017 Redskins game, Colquitt made the difference after Butker’s first miss in the NFL.
After Butker’s miss in the second quarter, it was Colquitt, a 13-year veteran, who gave the rookie a pep talk that boosted Butker’s spirits, so much so that in critical situations late in the fourth quarter, Reid had no qualms in trusting Butker to make his kicks.
“I was confident because he was confident,” Reid said.
But for the Chiefs, the best news might be the spectacular deal they got on Butker. They snagged a drafted rookie without expending any draft capital, and will end up having him on a minimum-cost contract for almost four full seasons — a point former sports agent Joel Corry noted last January.
Ryan Succop's new deal (reportedly $4M per year) should become an important data point for Graham Gano. Gano was great in 2017 but the Panthers could have had a kicker at $1.935M for the next 3 seasons (2018-2020) if Harrison Butker had been kept instead.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) February 21, 2018
Gano — due to the contract that former Chief kicker Ryan Succop had just negotiated with the Tennessee Titans — scored a four-year, $17 million deal with the Panthers last spring, while the Chiefs still have Butker on an inexpensive deal for two more seasons.
It’s a perfect example of why you should never try and stash a good kicker on your NFL practice squad.
But for the Panthers, that’s all spilt milk. Butker is now well-established as the Chiefs placekicker, and it’s wouldn’t be a stretch to think the Chiefs will do their best to hang on to him when his rookie contract expires in 2021.
That’s what you do when The ButtKicker finally finds his way to your team.
Since Butker came to the Chiefs in the middle of the 2017 season — and came into his own in the midst of a season we’ll forever remember as The Season of Mahomes — we probably haven’t devoted enough attention to his story in these pages. But on Sunday, Butker and his wife Isabelle informed the world about another chapter in it: the birth of their son James Augustine Butker.
Meet the newest member of the Butker family!— Harrison Butker (@buttkicker7) January 27, 2019
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James Augustine Butker
9lb 5 oz, 21 inches
Ss. James and Augustine, Pray for Us! pic.twitter.com/Uu5Bm27dSq
It seemed like a great time to catch you up on Butker’s story, and what we hope will be the beginning of another long period of excellence in the Chiefs’ kicking game.