Imagine what a really terrible day at your job would be. If you’re a bartender, maybe you served someone a drink with a fingernail in it. If you’re a bank teller, maybe you accidentally handed a customer $1,000 in cash when all they wanted was $10. If you’re a car salesman, perhaps you dented that $100,000 beauty on the corner of the dealership while bringing it around for a test drive. Cringeworthy mistakes, all, but fireable offenses?
Then again, you're probably not working in the NFL, where understandable mistakes can still cost you your job. Like, say, missing more extra points in a single game than anyone ever in the history of the NFL.
Kicking is such a strange, thankless, boom-or-bust occupation. In any game that ends on a final missed kick — the 2022 Peach Bowl, say, or Super Bowl XXV — a kicker’s teammates will rally around him, reciting through clenched teeth the old cliches about one play not costing them the game, or winning and losing as a team.
On one side, in a sliding-doors kind of way, a missed kick isn’t the only reason a team loses a game; that holding penalty that negated a first down and killed a first-quarter drive, that pass interference penalty that kept alive the opposition’s drive that ended in a touchdown, that decision to punt on fourth-and-short, they all end up shaping the game in a way that it eventually hinges on one kick.
On the other side is the “You had one job” mic-drop. A kicker is one who kicks, end of story. And if a kicker suddenly can’t kick, well, there’s not much use for him, is there?
Which brings us to Brett Maher, the usually reliable Cowboys kicker who suddenly, inexplicably and miserably missed one, two, three and then four extra points in a row against Tampa Bay in Monday night’s wild-card round finale. If the rest of the Cowboys hadn’t utterly throttled the Bucs on both sides of the ball, rendering the misses irrelevant, Maher might now be living under an assumed identity to avoid the wrath of Dallas fans.
Since it was clear early on Monday night that Dallas was going to carve through the butter-soft Bucs, though, everyone could laugh and wonder just how bad this could get, rather than fear for Maher’s safety. Now that the game’s in the books — closing with Maher making what was surely one of his most important kicks in his entire career — will the Cowboys kick Maher to the curb?
One bad game generally isn’t enough to get a kicker booted, but if it happens, it most often happens either early in the season or with a clear replacement plan in place. Earlier this season, the Colts cut Rodrigo Blankenship after a Week 1 tie with Houston where Hot Rod botched two kickoffs and missed a would-be game-winner in overtime. But Blankenship was already on thin ice because of an erratic and injury-plagued 2021 season. The Chiefs cut Matt Ammendola in September after he missed an extra point and a field goal against the Colts, but Ammendola was only keeping regular kicker Harrison Butker’s cleats warm while Butker recovered from an injury.
Veteran status has its privileges, too. Butker missed extra points or field goals in five straight games upon his return, but held onto his job. Four years ago, in a regular-season game against the Lions, Mason Crosby missed five kicks, including four field goals and an extra point, and not only held onto his job but kept on kicking for Green Bay right on through this season.
As for the likelihood that the Cowboys will cut ties with Maher, never say never; football teams do all kinds of strange things, and you’ll never go broke betting on coaches and general managers making bad personnel choices. But the safe play is to ride with the kicker they know, for two reasons. First, other than one Very Bad Day, he’s largely done his job just fine for Dallas. And second, adding a kicker in the middle of a playoff run is like trying to repair a plane in mid-flight. Plus, there aren't a whole lot of top-tier, battle-tested, playoff-ready kickers available in mid-January. The Cowboys might bring another kicker into camp, but Maher ought to hold onto his job for at least one week.
This season, Maher converted 50-of-53 extra-point attempts. In his prior stint with Dallas, from 2018-19, he hit 68 of 69 attempts. In other words, he missed as many extra points Monday night as he did over the course of 46 regular season games across three full seasons. That’s some notable and impressive consistency … but the playoffs bring a whole different level of pressure than the regular season.
Kickers who have made clutch kicks understand the different demands of the postseason. “In games where you feel the ground shake a little bit, stomping and screaming becomes white noise,” said Rich Karlis, who kicked a crucial extra point for Denver at the end of John Elway’s famous "Drive" game, then kicked the winning field goal winner in overtime. “That’s the difference between guys who can make it in the regular season versus the postseason, guys who are really good in practice versus guys who get it done in games.”
Prior to Monday night, Maher had only two games of playoff experience, both in the 2018 season. He made all five of the extra points he attempted against Seattle and the Rams, and went 1-for-2 in field goals during that postseason, converting a 39-yarder and missing from 58. Sunday night, Maher had two misses right, one miss left which was clearly a major overcorrection, one off the upright, and finally — crucially — a successful extra point.
"Knowing what that guy's done with the resiliency he's shown throughout his career," Dak Prescott said after the game, "personally, no doubt he'll come back next week and be perfect and help us win."
Although the over/under on Sunday’s Cowboys-49ers game is the lowest of all four divisional matchups this weekend at 46.5 per BetMGM, Maher will get his chances — or chance, at least. But if Maher struggles again with what should be easy kicks, next week could be a whole different story.
Contact Jay Busbee on Twitter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.