FRISCO, Texas. The message was consistent. But the tone was different.
The Dallas Cowboys said Tuesday they have no plans to retire kicker Brett Maher after he became the first player in NFL history to miss four extra tries in a game since the league began keeping records 91 years ago.
But the degree of confidence the Cowboys’ leadership expressed to Maher the day after the NFC’s 31-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was inconsistent.
Team owner Jerry Jones, on his morning radio show, was wary of leaving too soon for a player who had made 50 of 53 extra points in the regular season, in addition to 29 of 32 field goals.
“But we’ll look into it,” Jones told Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “It would be a big setback to go to the end of this tournament, to the end of the playoffs with a tremor in the kicker.”
There was head coach Mike McCarthy, who said Monday night from the stands at Raymond James Stadium that Maher was “disappointed, but we need him.” On Tuesday, McCarthy reaffirmed faith in Maher’s process and the kicker’s ability to bounce back from the worst night of his career.
“I think the most important thing is just to make sure you have a good plan for Brett’s promotion,” McCarthy said. “We are going to move forward. So for now, that’s the plan.”
The qualifying phrase “at the moment” seemed remarkable.
And then there was special teams coordinator John Fassel, who didn’t have to hesitate to express whether he wanted Maher to start for the Cowboys on the kicker in their divisional playoff game Sunday at the San Francisco 49ers.
“Hell yes,” Fassel said. “If you ask me, absolutely.
So what will the Cowboys do? And how do they explain the disastrous results that befell the NFL’s third-highest scoring player (137 points total) in the 2022 season?
Strange night of kicks
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Cowboys also believe that every attempt to score extra points is worth a story.
Coaches agreed that Maher’s anxiety on Monday night was more mental and situational than physical. The 33-year-old football player was not injured. There was no wind or bad weather in Tampa on Monday night. And the kicking operation – the hold, the snap – was clean.
On his first miss, Maher “didn’t go all the way,” Fassel said. “Almost like a lazy swing.” The ball flew so far to the right that it did not hit the net behind the post, but into the stands of the stadium. The Cowboys then had to continue their kicking operation with the second of three assigned kicking balls, or “K”, a ball with which Maher had far less reps and experience.
To further divert attention from the second attempt for an extra point, officials apparently flagged the Cowboys’ operation before the second kick, stating that they could not use a white-painted blade of grass from a painted field line to detect the ball. Whether or not this contributed to the second try for a right extra point is debatable, but no, Maher apparently caught the ball with his toe rather than hitting it cleanly.
The stands swallowed that ball as well, leaving the Cowboys content with their last and least worn ball.
“We have a third and final K ball left that hasn’t been tampered with,” Fassel said, explaining the nuances. “You only have a certain amount of time with K balls, so you spend most of your time [pregame] on the first, what is left on the second, and hope to get [kick] on the third. The first two got lost in the stands. Down to our last K ball, and if we lost it, we would have to use one of the pirates.”
Maher recorrected his third attempt. This time he waved to the left.
And by the fourth miss, Maher’s mind was in chaos. Yes, Fassel said, Maher had a “sigh” — a psychological phenomenon in sports that the Mayo Clinic defines as “when athletes become “so restless and self-focused — overthink to the point of absent-mindedness — that their ability to perform any skill … is weakened.” .
Maher eventually connected on the fifth try.
On Tuesday morning, in a meeting with Fassel, the kicker remained “distraught.”
“The perfect storm for a bad hit,” Fassel said. “I believe in a hot hand and I believe in shouting. Absolutely. Sometimes you will wonder how you get into the screams and sometimes you will wonder how you get into the hot hand again. I think that it is [to] keep approaching the line and shooting.”
Fassel explains the “best medicine” for Maher
As of Tuesday evening, the Cowboys had no plans to drastically change Maher’s training week or game day routine, a person familiar with the plan confirmed to Sportzshala Sports. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly reveal the details of the team’s game plan.
On Tuesday, Maher practiced at the team’s headquarters, reviewing a disappointing footage and preparing for his usually scheduled chaotic work on Thursday and situational strikes on Friday. A potential reversal of direction was the most likely change, should it occur (e.g. turning right instead of left), but a clean week of training could eliminate even that lean.
The Cowboys’ next full practice session, and thus kicking time, was scheduled for Thursday.
Fassel has praised Maher’s process as the best and most distinct kicker routine he has worked with in 18 seasons coaching special NFL kicking teams including Sebastian Janikowski and Greg Zuerlein. Everyone, at some point, has received yips. After that, everyone kept kicking and walking past them.
“This week will give him confidence, he will just go back there,” Fassel said. “He will probably be in a lot of pain mentally until he can sweat and kick again. There is no better cure than returning to the training field. I am optimistic. A nice, professional person who really doesn’t give a damn…makes me optimistic about a good rebound. We all want it.
“Honestly, as a coach, I kind of live for moments like this — playing more psychologist than coach, getting back into the conference rooms and finding a way to help these guys recover.”
Maher won’t have much time to turn around. The Cowboys travel to San Francisco on Saturday after a shortened training week, aiming to upset the 49ers and advance to a conference championship game for the first time in 27 years.
Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be another test on grass, as opposed to the Cowboys’ home turf. The winds in the bay area are likely to be an additional test for Maher.
The 49ers are favorites with 3.5 points according to BetMGM. The cowboys will need every point they can score. Members of the organization hope that Maher will cope.
“At the end of the day, we all have jobs,” McCarthy said. “He knows he has to hit the ball through the posts. And he was very productive and consistent for us.
“In this business, especially this game, you learn from experience when things don’t go your way, not from success. Just like our entire football team [in a Week 18 loss]we came out of Washington and got hit in the jaw, and I think we responded clearly.
“I think he definitely has that in him.”
Follow Jori Epstein of Sportzshala Sports on Twitter. @JoriEpstein