Epidemic agony of the feet

San Diego's Nate Kaeding is one of the most accurate NFL place-kickers. But in the Chargers' 17-14 AFC divisional playoff loss to the New York Jets, Kaeding missed all three of his field goal attempts. Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The more Lin Elliott watched San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding struggle in Sunday's divisional playoff game, the more Elliott knew Kaeding was in trouble.

Before Kaeding missed three field goals in that 17-14 loss to the New York Jets, Elliott had been the last person to experience such postseason devastation. That misery occurred 14 years ago, when Elliott kicked for the Kansas City Chiefs. Elliott knew how quickly Kaeding's issues could spiral out of control.

It was the flow of the game that made Elliott especially uneasy: the way the Chargers had become more conservative on offense; the costly mistakes and mindless penalties by normally reliable players; the game-changing plays the Jets kept making.

Before Kaeding even came out for the last of his three attempts -- a fairly easy 40-yard field goal try for a man who had made 69 straight kicks from inside that range -- Elliott thought the stress of the moment would result in a miss.

"It's an easy kick in September or October," said Elliott, who now works as an investment manager in Waco, Texas. "But pressure doesn't exist in kicking until you get into December and January. Once you hit this time of year, it can be a bear, especially once you miss one kick."

If there has been one theme that has emerged throughout this postseason, it is that playoff pressure can be rough on kickers. It can make All-Pro kickers like Kaeding appear squeamish, and it can leave frustrated coaches and teammates shaking their heads in dismay.

This weekend, that stress will reach even higher levels for the four kickers playing in the conference championship games: the Indianapolis Colts' Matt Stover, the New York Jets' Jay Feely, the Minnesota Vikings' Ryan Longwell and the New Orleans Saints' Garrett Hartley.

If they're not careful, they could wind up succumbing to the same cruel fates that recently have haunted their peers.

  • Kaeding had hit 91.4 percent of his field goals this year before missing from 36, 57 and 40 yards against the Jets.

  • Cincinnati Bengals kicker Shayne Graham has an 85.2 percent accuracy mark for his career, but he blew two tries in a 24-14 wild-card loss to the Jets on Jan. 9, including a 28-yarder.

  • Arizona Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers also had his problems in the wild-card round. After converting 94.1 percent of his attempts in the regular season, he blew a potential game-winning, 34-yard attempt at the end of regulation in a 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay (along with a less-noteworthy 50-yard try in the Cardinals' 45-14 loss to New Orleans in Saturday's divisional playoff).

    Overall, kickers are hitting only 57.7 percent of their attempts in the playoffs, compared to 81.3 percent in the 2009 regular season.

    The job has become so difficult that Saints backup quarterback and holder Mark Brunell said, "I wouldn't want to be a kicker, especially not in the postseason. You have to be pretty strong emotionally to handle it."

    "There is a different pressure in the playoffs," said St. Louis Rams kicker Josh Brown, who played in nine postseason games as a member of the Seattle Seahawks from 2003-07.

    "The head game that you get into is trying to discern the situation. When you know it's a one-and-done deal, there is going to be more pressure on you."

    Brown knows this as well as anybody.

    When he lined up for his first field goal in Seattle's Super Bowl XL loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he nearly blacked out.

    He wound up making that 47-yarder but later missed from 54 and 50 yards. Looking back on those final two kicks, Brown said that overconfidence sabotaged him.

    When kickers talk about the pressure that comes in those moments, they say it has plenty to do with the way games play out in the postseason. The scores are generally closer. The coaches are more likely to play for field position and avoid turnovers.

    As Longwell said, "Points are at such a premium in the playoffs that there is more of a microscope on the kicker. You know every kick can impact the game and when you have that understanding, you can do things that affect your rhythm."

    Said Elliott: "What happens to kickers in those critical moments is that they speed up somewhere in their mechanics because they want to see the result happen quicker. From 30 to 35 yards out, that's usually not a problem. But from 40 to 45 yards out, it's a problem."

    Recalling an ice-cold nightmare

    This year's remaining playoff contenders don't have to worry about the elements affecting their kickers: Both home teams, Indianapolis and New Orleans, play in enclosed stadiums.

    Otherwise, the weather can be huge factor in how kickers produce in the postseason. What most people remember about Elliott was his epic failure for a Chiefs team that had gone 13-3 during the 1995 regular season.

    What they tend to forget is the challenges he faced during that 10-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that postseason. Elliott remembers the game-time temperatures that Jan. 7, 1996 day as hovering at the zero-degree mark. The Arrowhead Stadium field "was like kicking off your garage floor."

    Those elements created two issues for Elliott: They limited his ability to practice on the sidelines and they forced him to change his approach to kicking in order to avoid slipping on the turf.

    "I was worried about everything but the kick that day," said Elliott, who missed field goals from 35, 39 and 42 yards. "But what I learned is that you have to prepare yourself for anything. That's why I tell young kickers to try things they don't normally do, like putting a dress shoe on one foot and kicking with the other foot.

    "There are times when you'll have to figure out how to do [unforeseeable things]. And the guys who are clutch -- like [Colts kickers] Adam Vinatieri and Matt Stover -- figure that out pretty fast."

    Though Vinatieri won't be able to kick this weekend against the Jets -- he still is recovering from midseason knee surgery -- he has proven to be the most clutch kicker in NFL postseason history. Of the four Super Bowl victories he's been involved with, he decided two with his right leg (both with the New England Patriots). And the Colts don't lose anything with Stover replacing him. The 20-year veteran is the second-most accurate place-kicker in NFL history (83.7 percent, minimum of 150 attempts) and he's also played on a Super Bowl champion (the 2000 Baltimore Ravens).

    Focus on the process, not the end result

    The Colts are lucky to have two elite kickers. Most teams have a hard enough time finding one.

    "The way I see it, there are usually 10-12 kickers in the NFL who are better than everybody else and the next 20 guys are replaceable," said Elliott, who also kicked for the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and '93. "So it comes down to who gets a chance to prove themselves.

    "When I was in Dallas, I had a special-teams coach named Steve Hoffman who started a trend of giving young guys a chance. His philosophy was that you can find a lot of guys who can make 75 or 80 percent during the regular season.

    "What you don't know is what they'll do in the fourth quarter and the playoffs. And you won't know that until you reach that point."

    Still, there is a great value in a kicker failing before he reaches a critical juncture in the postseason.

    Feely What you have to understand is that you can't fear failure.

    -- Jets kicker Jay Feely, who will kick against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game Sunday

    When Longwell missed a potential game-winning, 27-yard field goal for the Green Bay Packers in 1997 -- which happened to be his second career game with that team -- he benefited from supportive talks with then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre and defensive end Reggie White.

    Jets kicker Feely also felt his own devastation. In 2005, as a member of the New York Giants, he missed three field goals in a regular-season loss to the Seahawks. His performance was so ugly that "Saturday Night Live" later lampooned him in a skit.

    Feely can laugh about it now because he has endured.

    "What you have to understand is that you can't fear failure," said Feely, who has converted at least 83 percent of his field goals in every season since that point.

    "When you go through something like that -- and you see that it won't destroy you -- you see that you can perform up to your ability. And the way you succeed is by focusing on the process instead of the end result. Once you start to focus on the end result, your mind can start wondering."

    Prepare for eventual failure

    Every kicker has his own approach to steadying his nerves.

    John Carney kicked this season for the Saints but was waived in December, and then the team hired him as a kicking consultant. "The key," he said, "is learning how to calm yourself down and make everything fluid [in your routine]."

    Brown still relies the advice he received from former Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren, who told him "that every day has to be a like game (for him)" and "I have to make every single kick as if it's the only one that matters."

    ESPN analyst and former NFL head coach Herm Edwards said he even tried to make life easier for his kickers with game-time decisions.

    "I always tried to get the ball at least 5 yards closer before their first kick just so they could have a layup to get the confidence going," Edwards said.

    "What you want is for your muscle memory to take over," said Dr. Kevin Elko, a sports psychologist who works with kickers and recently wrote a book entitled "Touchdown!: Achieving Your Greatness on the Playing Field of Business (and Life)."

    "When you get into a team game, you're going to think about things. If you miss a field goal in the regular season, you may think you'll get another shot. When you miss a field goal in the Super Bowl, you may think you've blown a championship. What you'd like to see in every kicker is no thought [when attempting a field goal]."

    As much as kickers prepare themselves for postseason pressure, they also understand that they eventually will fail.

    That is why they have such a strong support group amongst themselves.

    The brotherhood

    Most know the pain that comes with letting your team down: the sleepless nights, the shaken confidence, the feeling, as Brown said, "that the whole world has fallen on top of you."

    In fact, Feely sent a sympathetic text to the Bengals' Graham after the Jets' wild-card win. He also consoled a clearly devastated Kaeding on Sunday.

    These players make such an effort because they realize that few people can relate to the demands of their jobs. For somebody like Kaeding -- who is now 3-for-9 in postseason kicks at home -- there are now legitimate questions about his mental toughness in the clutch.

    "For Nate to miss those, I really felt for him and understood some of his pain," said Stover.

    "So I prayed for the guy and I understand as a kicker that you're going to say, 'I'm going to do everything I can for this team to get the ball through the uprights and not go out there and ever think about those situations.'

    "You don't go out there ever thinking you're going to miss a field goal."

    Defined by the biggest moments

    Elliott felt the same way during his struggles, but ultimately it didn't matter.

    After his contract expired with the Chiefs following that loss to the Colts in the 1995 postseason, the team didn't re-sign him.

    He had two more shots to stay in the NFL -- in Minnesota the following season and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the year after that -- but couldn't win a job. So after playing four years in the league and winning a Super Bowl title with the 1992 Dallas Cowboys, Elliott ended his career quietly.

    What he realizes today is something that every kicker in this weekend's game should understand: Kickers who miss big field goals only get so many opportunities.

    In the end, they're ultimately defined by what they do at this time of year.

    As Elliott said, "There are a lot of kickers who will kick a long time in this league. But only a select few of those guys are really clutch."

    Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.