Like everyone else who was tuned into that head-scratching ending to Broncos-Seahawks on Monday night, Jake Elliott watched Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett play for a 192-foot field goal and thought … Really? The Broncos’ Brandon McManus is one of the best kickers in the NFL, but melting the clock to set up a 64-yard attempt? On fourth-and-5? With Russell Wilson as your quarterback? No, Elliott wasn’t involved in that conversation on the Broncos’ sideline: Should we go for the first down? Should we kick it? But he has been involved in conversations like that one, and … yeesh.
“You obviously want to get as many yards as you can,” Elliott said Wednesday, before the Eagles practiced. “I guess at fourth-and-7, it’s probably a kick for sure. If it’s fourth-and-3, you’re probably going for it, for sure. It’s a tough spot where you’ve got to make a quick decision. They chose what they chose.”
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Elliott has been with the Eagles for five years now, going from a hastily signed substitute for an injured Caleb Sturgis — There’s a trivia question for you: Who was the original kicker on the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl team? — to a franchise fixture. Only David Akers has had more overall success and staying power at the position for the Eagles, and it was a scenario similar to the one that McManus faced at Lumen Field on Monday that solidified Elliott’s standing here. He boomed that team-record 61-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat the Giants on Sept. 19, 2017, in his second NFL game and his first at Lincoln Financial Field, and all he has done from there is earn from the Eagles what every kicker at every level of football wants from his team: the benefit of the doubt.
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In the ecosystem of the NFL, kickers are a unique species. So much of the sport is predicated on instinct, on brute force, on a player reading and reacting and not dwelling too long on the job at hand. By the nature of their roles and the time on their hands, kickers can do nothing but dwell. The threat to their competence and employment is psychological, not physical, and if they’re not careful, they can join the pitiful ranks of the golfer who has the putting yips, the basketball player who freezes up at the free-throw line, and the second baseman who has a mental block about throwing the ball to first.
Save one subpar season, 2020, Elliott has been reliable to excellent, never better statistically than he was last year: 44-of-44 on extra points, 30-of-33 on field goals. As former NFL executive Andrew Brandt likes to say, kickers are like lawyers: You don’t appreciate them until you need a good one. And the Eagles were so confident in Elliott that, in 2019, they signed him to a five-year contract extension reportedly worth as much as $19.3 million, as long and lucrative a deal as a kicker could hope for.
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McManus, an alumnus of North Penn High School and Temple, has the same kind of status with the Broncos. This is his ninth season with them, and he agreed to a four-year extension, for as much as $17.2 million, in September 2020. But even for a kicker with as much experience and as strong a track record as Elliott’s or McManus’, Hackett’s strategy made no sense. A 64-yarder is simply too long to be anything other than a last resort, especially in an outdoor stadium. Hackett operated instead as if McManus would be trying a 34-yarder, and in such situations, Elliott said, a head coach or special-teams coordinator doesn’t ask, Can you make it from there? The coaches just make a call in the heat of the moment, and the kicker had better be ready.
“If you’re in a dome, you feel good about hitting a really, really good ball,” Elliott said. “Obviously, it’s a long kick, right? But you feel decent about it in a dome that it’s going to get there. [Outside]you feel probably pretty good about it if you’ve got a little tailwind, which doesn’t happen at the Linc. All of it’s got to align really well. It’s a tough one. It’s really a tough one.”
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Those little variables and details add up, and often they make a difference. It’ll be a warm night Monday at the Linc, when the Eagles host the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles have Elliott. The Vikings have Greg Joseph; they are his sixth NFL team in four years. And one week after Nathaniel Hackett placed too great a burden on one of the strongest legs in the sport, who knows? Maybe this game comes down to a decision involving the position no one thinks about until someone has to. Maybe it comes down to a guy who’s still trying to earn the benefit of the doubt, or a guy who, five years ago, already did.
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