Stefan Fatsis, the author of Word Freak, sportswriter (on leave) from the Wall Street Journal and sports commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered," knows kickers. His upcoming book, A Few Seconds Of Panic, is about the modern NFL as experienced by Fatsis, a 5-8, 170-pound writer embedded as a kicker with the Broncos during the training camp in 2006; it comes out in August 2008. He spent time with Jason Elam, who kicked the crazy game-winning field goal against Buffalo, and reflects on its impossibility here.
When Denver wideout Javon Walker caught the ball and fell to the ground at Buffalo's 24-yard line with the clock ticking to nothing, one word went screaming through my cerebral cortex: Geronimo!
That's the term for a last-second, no-timeouts, no-way-to-stop-the-clock field goal that I learned when I kicked with the Broncos last summer. It's a fairly straightforward procedure. When the seconds are evaporating, the special-teams coaches shout something along the lines of "Get ready Geronimo!'' to alert the 11 members of the field-goal protection unit, or FG Pro, they might be needed. When it's time to move, the coaches and then the players subbing into the game from the bench "sprint on the field yelling 'Geranamo'!!" as my playbook put it. Correcting my special-teams coach's spelling might have been my biggest contribution to the franchise.
My coach moved over to the defensive backs this season, and Mike Shanahan hired a new special-teams boss who, as NFL coaches do, changed the terminology. This year's call is "Toro!'' to get ready and "Rally!'' to set the play in motion. Not that players ever expect to perform it. During my three months as a paper Bronco, we formally practiced emergency kicks one day and fake-field-goal tomfoolery one day. I asked Jason Elam the last time the team had called a fake. "The Nixon administration,'' he said. Naturally, Elam ran the first fake of his career last December. (And pulled a hamstring doing it, adding another tale to the legend of the dork kicker; Elam's actually a terrific all-round athlete.) Then, yesterday, he ran the nearly-as-rare last-second fire drill.
I wasn't at the game in Orchard Park, but I did watch it live via a heaven-sent (well, China-sent), illegal transmission on my computer. Afterward, like a teenage Bill Belichick studying tape of Navy games or a Kennedy-assassination wackjob deconstructing the Zapruder film, I paused and played and paused and played the NFL.com highlights of the final seconds about 30 times. If you thought the play was incredible in real time, it's even more remarkable broken down.
When we practiced Geronimo during training camp, Elam told me a team needs 16 seconds from the spot of the ball by the referee to run the play — time for FG Pro to run onto the field, get set and snap the ball. Sixteen seconds, he said, should be plenty. "The biggest thing is don't rush it,'' Jason advised. "Everybody's screaming and yelling, there's a lot of chaos going on. But we've got ten seconds, nine, eight. You've got plenty of time.''
"Six, five, four,'' I said, taking my steps back.
"It doesn't have to be snapped until zero,'' Jason said. "I'm usually ready by the time the refs are ready.''
The Broncos didn't have nearly as much time yesterday. Trailing 14-12, 'Bama-banged second-year quarterback Jay Cutler had marched the team to Buffalo's 35-yard line. With no timeouts, Cutler scrambled for no gain as the clock ticked toward 20 seconds. At that point, the Broncos could have spiked the ball and thrown one more ball toward the sidelines, or had Elam attempt a 53-yard field goal. While I know Jason Elam, and Jason Elam is a friend of mine, I also recognize that he's 37 years old and already had missed twice from shorter distances. So Cutler took the snap at 0:18 and hit Javon Walker on a two-step slant in toward the middle of the field. Walker fell to the ground at the 24 yard line at 0:15. First down. The ref grabbed the ball at 0:11. No way, I thought, can they pull it off.
The Broncos apparently intended to have Cutler spike the ball and allow Elam to trot on casually for the pressure kick. But the signals got crossed and the cry of "Toro!'' sent the FG Pro unit rushing on and the offense sprinting off. On the tape, with five seconds left, Javon Walker is the last Bronco exiting the field, but everyone on the field-goal team is, remarkably, in position — everyone except for the holder, punter Todd Sauerbrun.
Elam had in effect fired Sauerbrun from the job in 2005 in favor of starting quarterback Jake Plummer, beloved by Elam for his quick hands and consistent ball placement. Those traits are critically reassuring for kickers, especially for 15-year veterans who call the shots about how they want to perform their jobs. But Plummer is gone and the new special-teams coach, Scott O'Brien, gave the job to Sauerbrun, with whom he had worked in Carolina. Whether Sauerbrun's holds had anything to do with Elam's earlier misses I have no idea, but on this crucial play, for whatever reason, Sauerbrun is late.
Elam already has his right foot on the "spot'' he wants Sauerbrun to place the nose of the ball, eight and a quarter yards behind the line of scrimmage. The clock now reads :04, and it's still not clear they'll have time. Elam has to retreat into place; the line has to stay still; long-snapper Mike Leach has to make eye contact through his legs with Sauerbrun; everyone has to block out the deafening crowd; Elam has to signal Sauerbrun to start the play; Leach has to release the ball.
Elam abandons his usual three-steps-back-and-two-steps-over routine and takes the hypotenuse, backpedaling four steps on a diagonal. He's in place at :03. The clock flips to :02 just as Leach fires the ball, officially starting the play, which, from snap to kick typically takes 1.25 seconds, enough time to get the ball up before the defense can penetrate and block it. Sauerbrun places the nose of the ball down at :01, and it's still there when Elam's right foot strikes the ball. The clock turns to 0:00 as the ball flies over the line en route to the goalposts 42 yards away. Leach — a terrific guy and accomplished specialist who was just named the 1,000th-best player in the NFL, haha, by SI's Peter King — rises and blocks a couple of Bills, then bursts through the line and sprints with arms raised to retrieve the ball, the epitome of the selfless snapper. Elam runs the other way with index finger aloft and is tackled by one of my buddies, tight end Nate Jackson. A classic sports dogpile ensues.
Kicking a field goal during an NFL practice is the most unnerving thing I've done in my life . It is the rare play when the clock is (almost always) stopped, and the game's full focus shifts to an individual. It's also the yang to the kicker's normal yin life. Elam one day described his job, inspiring my book title, as "hours and hours of boredom surrounded by a few seconds of panic.'' He'd know as well as anyone. According to our friends at Football Outsiders, Elam since 1996 has nailed 12 of 14 field goals in the final minute of regulation or in overtime to tie or win a game. That's a more clutch percentage than his friend Adam Vinatieri, who's earned his rep partly because he's had a lot of chances, going 20 for 25 in that same period. As a sort-of kicker, I'm obviously biased. I think both dudes should be in Canton some day.
And what Elam (and his special-teams mates) pulled off yesterday should be a shiny border on his application. He executed to perfection one of the most chaotic plays in a sport defined by chaos. And did it with two seconds to spare.