Rookie kicker competes with mental edge

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- These are the times Morten Andersen was talking about.

The moments that can make or break your career as a kicker in the NFL.

But Andersen, one of the most prolific kickers in league history, spent three years preparing Cardinals rookie Chandler Catanzaro to manage this moment with his mind, learning how to control it, calm it, clear it. It started paying off Saturday.

“He came to me with a need to become more consistent and to put his mental game in order so he was able to control things a little better,” Andersen said. “Not to be so down when something distasteful happened and being able to have good coping skills if something went bad; something always happens that’s challenging.

“You’re never perfect. How do you manage that? How do you manage that behavior?”

The fourth day of training camp started off normally for Catanzaro, the record-setting kicker from Clemson. He was perfect, hitting his first three kicks at practice, continuing his torrid pace to unseat incumbent kicker Jay Feely. Then he lined up at the 41-yard line.

The snap from Mike Leach came, Dave Zastudil lined it up and instead of a booming, accelerating kick off Catanzaro’s right foot came an end-over-end boot that missed. His next kick, from 47 yards, went off the right post. And the next missed again to the right. Catanzaro took some solace in hitting his final two kicks, but for the first time in training camp he had deal with the mental side of the job.

“If you’re fearful it’s not going to be good,” Catanzaro said. “You got to have the mind for it as a kicker. You got to like that stage. You got to embrace it and embrace all the emotion and adrenaline and put it through the pipes for the team.

“They’re counting on you and as a kicker you got to be a solid rock out there. That’s what I’ve tried to be so far.”

Catanzaro has missed three in a row twice now; the first came last spring. After Catanzaro walked off the field, Arizona’s special team’s coordinator Amos Jones pulled him aside and, while the two huddled over a water cooler, Jones reassured the rookie that missing field goals wasn’t bad if he could bounce back.

He’s gone through his makes and misses during the first two weeks of camp. While Jones won’t use it as excuse, he pointed out that Catanzaro and Feely alternate practice kicks and said fatigue is bound to set in at some point.

Catanzaro showed what he is capable of Saturday night against the Houston Texans in Arizona’s preseason opener. He was prefect on field goals, hitting from 32, 28 and 25. And, despite not doing it in college, Catanzaro also handled kicking off. He had two touchbacks and the Texans’ average starting position on the five kickoffs they returned was their own 13-yard line.

“The kickoffs were the thing that is most impressive,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

“They were trying to return them and anytime you start behind the 15-yard line you know you had a great kick.”

Catanzaro may not be given a chance to kick in a preseason game again until the finale in San Diego. Arians said Monday he wants each kicker to play indoors and outdoors during the preseason. Regardless of when he kicks next, Catanzaro’s outing Saturday put the pressure on the veteran Feely.

When Catanzaro traveled to Atlanta three years ago for a two-day stay at the Morten Andersen Boot Camp, the former Saints, Falcons, Chiefs, Vikings and Giants kicker shared 25 years of kicking knowledge. During the camp, six visits since and countless pep talks, Andersen has installed a series of protocols that are geared to keeping Catanzaro focused.

When Andersen first started working with Catanzaro, he saw a natural talent but he didn’t see an edge.

“It’s so isolating in a way, you’re still depending on other people, but at the end of the day it’s your foot on ball that everybody remembers, so you need to take ownership of that,” Andersen said. “He’s got all the tools to become an NFL kicker, so that missing line back three years ago when I started working with him was the mental toughness because he’s so nice.”

For the last three years, Andersen has preached confidence to Catanzaro. He doesn’t need to talk the talk, he needs to let his feet walk the walk. Andersen has helped Catanzaro channel a meanness into his mental approach.

“I kinda think he developed his own style,” Andersen said. “I think when he kicks, he’s less nice than when he was. He kicks with purpose. He understands when he does something wrong he can fix it. Before he couldn’t and he was floundering.”

The last time Catanzaro was an underdog he didn’t have the mental strength he does now.

He was a preferred walk-on at Clemson and redshirted his freshman season. During that first fall, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney turned to the lanky kicker and dared him to end practice. All it would take is a 54-yard field goal.

“I think that kinda earned the respect and the trust of my teammates,” Catanzaro said. “They hoisted me up and everything. It was real cool. It was like a game winner.”

He went on to become Clemson’s all-time leading scorer. It didn't lead to him being drafted, although the Cardinals had their eye on Catanzaro sending Jones to Clemson to work him out before the draft.

But Catanzaro has been in this position before. He had to kick his way onto the field at Clemson, just like he’s trying to do in Glendale. During offseason workouts, he was given a chance to end practice just by hitting a field goal. He made it.

Sound familiar?