A Tale of Two Kickers, by Wyatt Vaughn, mentored by Ro Brown
After a disappointing loss in last week’s season opener to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints were back in action this week hosting the 0-0-1 Cleveland Browns in the Superdome. The often overlooked part of any football game is special teams, which can make or break a season. To borrow some advice from the great Bear Bryant, first find a punter and a kicker; if that wasn’t important, they’d call it armball. And every once in a while, there are individual games where those punters and kickers are the obvious deciding factor. Today was one of those days.
Saints kicker Wil Lutz embraced the pressure and delivered in the clutch, giving New Orleans the late win. After missing a 44-yard field goal in the first half, Wil Lutz came back with vengeance in the second half. Sean Payton mentioned it in his post game press conference: “ It was a big kick he hit and a couple of big hits their guy didn’t hit. That ended up being the difference too.”
While not entirely perfect for the day, Lutz’s second half field goals and deep kickoffs proved to be the difference in the game. The Saints’ first win of the regular season came down to who made the big kicks in the big moments, and in the end, the veteran Wil Lutz delivered, and Zane Gonzalez, the second year foot from Arizona State, couldn’t split the posts when he needed to the most, or often enough.
It started off as about as good of a day as a kicker could ask for, with Gonzalez owning the first half as the leading scorer, going 2-2, and giving the Browns a 6-3 lead at halftime. Things quickly unraveled for the young kicker in the second half, as he would go on to miss two field goal attempts and two extra points, leaving 8 points on the field for the Browns; more than twice what the Browns needed to get their first road win since 2015. The Saints’ early season 21-18 win wasn’t the prettiest, riddled with turnovers and missed opportunities, but in the end, the special teams unit did their job.
Gonzalez could be seen after the game sitting on the bench with his hands on his head. He knew that his failures on the field had in the end cost his team the game, their first win since 2016, and possibly his job. When Browns coach Hue Jackson was asked about maybe finding a new kicker he replied with, “It was a big kick he hit and a couple of big hits their guy didn’t hit. That ended up being the difference too.” Not the most confidence building comments from your head coach if you’re Zane Gonzalez.
Being a kicker can be a tough job sometimes. Like catchers in baseball, you don’t notice the really good ones because they are simply doing their job. But you really notice the bad ones and that’s what happened today with Zane Gonzalez. Alone out there with their teams’ hopes on their shoulders, one kicker embraced that feeling, and the other fell under the pressure today.
Special teams play was a theme throughout the NFC today as the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers walked away with a 1 in their tie columns. If only one of the three missed Packer field goals had found its way through the goal posts, including a 35-yard attempt in the game ending seconds of overtime, a kicker would have been celebrated versus criticized.
Sometimes, failing as a kicker can improve your game. Saints fans know this better than most. In 2009, Garrett Hartley missed a game tying field goal in week 16 of the NFL season, resulting in New Orleans’ second loss. He was devastated. But, he got his chance make up for it. And oh, what a chance it was. In one of the most iconic games in Saints history, with the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings on the line, he was faced with one field goal to send the Saints to their first Super Bowl ever. Sometimes, adversity can lead to opportunity. If embraced, it can mold you into a better version of yourself, personally or professionally. For Garrett Hartley, it certainly did. For Wil Lutz, his moment may have happened during the 2016 draft. Despite being undrafted, and nearly unsigned, Coach Payton decided to take the chance on him after the Ravens signed and released him in the same year. He came up huge against the Vikings in the 2017 playoffs, and today he gave the Saints the win with less than a minute remaining. If Zane is looking to anyone after today’s game for inspiration, he certainly doesn’t have to look far.
- Coach Payton’s decision to keep Taysom Hill on the roster as a 3rd string QB based on his ability to contribute on special teams paid off today, as Hill posted a 47-yard kickoff return, (his first kickoff return ever), and forced the Browns to burn a timeout on a 2 point conversion when he lined up as QB, with Brees at WR. Hill remains a run threat wherever you put him.
- Tommylee Lewis gave fans a scare with a trip to the locker room, but returned for second half play.
- Both teams had 12 points from offensive touchdowns. Extra points and missed field goals definitely decided this game, with Lutz accounting for 6 points on field goals.Leaving 8 points on the table, Gonzalez could only account for 6 points off his first half field goals, missing 2 extra point attempts, and a pair of field goals.
- Special teams protected the ball on all punts and returns, accounted for no turnovers or even muffed points, and committed no game or drive extending penalties. If this trend continues throughout the season, it will make the offensive and defensive players jobs a lot easier.