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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — One of the most productive kickers in NFL history found himself in an interesting situation late in the NFC championship game. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, the Saints were setting themselves up to kick a potential game-winning field goal.
But it would not be 22-year veteran John Carney — who had done the majority of the kicking for the Saints this season — attempting the biggest boot in franchise history. Instead, it was Garrett Hartley, the youngster who began the 2009 season serving a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant, a situation that opened the door for Carney's return to New Orleans, where he played from 2001-06.
The outcome is well known. Hartley connected on the 40-yarder in overtime, advancing the Saints to their first Super Bowl berth.
Did Carney long to be the one making the kick?
"Sure, yeah. I was trying to wrestle Garrett's cleats away from him and get on the field myself, but his helmet was too big," kidded Carney. "No, I was really excited and pleased for Garrett. We had worked for over a month on game-winning kicks, and what you want to be focused on and the preparation leading up to the kick, because he had missed a kick against Tampa in December, almost from the same spot on the field. So he has prepared for that. He responded real well. He was ready for it during the course of the game, and when the opportunity came up, he responded like a champ."
Part of the reason that Hartley was so well prepared is because Carney has been so generous this season, helping to mentor a young kicker who had to endure some trying times in 2009.
When the kick heard round the world was booted, Carney wasn't even an option to use. He had lost his roster spot in late December, when the Saints opted to free up a roster spot by releasing their No. 2 kicker. But the Saints didn't banish Carney. Instead, they hired him to serve as their kicking consultant, allowing him to continue in a role that he already had been serving while also being an active player.
The 45-year-old Carney and the 23-year-old Hartley formed a bond in training camp, when the pair worked closely together. Carney was signed by the Saints once it was learned that Hartley would serve a four-game suspension to open the season after testing positive for Adderall, a banned prescription drug that Hartley said he took to help him stay awake during a long drive from Dallas to New Orleans.
The original plan called for Carney to kick in the first four games, perhaps a little longer, all the while helping teach some tricks of the trade to the Hartley. Carney wound up kicking in 11 games this season, hitting on 13-of-17 field-goal attempts compared to Hartley's 9-of-11 regular-season FG attempts.
Hartley embraced the situation early on, knowing there was much to learn from such an accomplished kicker.
"He's been such a tremendous attribute," Hartley said Wednesday. "Being a young player in this league, him knowing the ins and outs, every little secret, whatever it might be, from what type of shoes you need to be wearing to how you grind them down to how we go about pregame wind and the weather conditions. Every little possible detail you can think about on the field, he's been there."
In his latest role, Carney is with the Saints every day, working with not only Hartley, but also rookie P Thomas Morestead. He runs with the two kicking specialists. He works out with them. He watches film with them. Anything and everything he can do to help them improve, he does.
"My relationship with Garrett and Thomas Morestead, it really started back in training camp," said Carney. "I was working with both of them as a fellow player, but also as a seasoned veteran that could pass along some experiences, some wisdom to them because they're both young in the league. And that's kind of continued throughout the course of the season. Week 14, I went from player to consultant completely, so now I've been able to watch more film with them. I still work out with them, train with them, and we discuss more situations that could arise. Whatever experiences I've had in my career, I do my best to share with them. And it's been a great relationship the three of us have, and Jason Kyle, who is our long-snapper, is also a very seasoned veteran. The whole mix has been very beneficial."
Saints special-teams coach Greg McMahon recognizes what a unique situation he has working for him.
"What a great opportunity for us," said McMahon. "John is our kicking consultant. John Carney is working with a rookie punter and a (young) kicker. He really just helps with our practices and technique, the fundamentals of kicking and punting. He's been a great resource for me. I've enjoyed coaching John in '06 and now this year. He's really brought a lot to the table just from the experience standpoint."
Carney has not only served an on-field mentor, he has been there for Hartley off the field, as well.
"(He's been there) whenever I was going through the emotional ups and downs that I've had this season," Hartley said. "I remember talking to him during my suspension, after I missed the (potential game-winning) kick against Tampa (in Week 16), him coming over and hanging out and bringing me a pizza in my apartment, to congratulating me after last week's game."
While Carney would have loved the opportunity to kick the game-winner in the NFC title game, he did his best to contribute to the win by preparing Hartley for anything that could happen as time wound down in the game. Hartley contends that Carney played a big role in successfully connecting on the field goal.
"Talking with me with about three or four minutes left in the fourth quarter," said Hartley, recalling what helped him prepare. "Telling me, 'OK, Hart, take yourself out of the game, you're still focused, but you're only determined on whatever you can do to help the team win. So visualize the opportunity and the situation that might arise, and basically just go through your motions.' We learned from the Tampa kick that I rushed myself. I didn't get the follow-through that I wanted because I did. So I just told myself two little things, just kind of relax and stay back and keep my head down and things worked out."
With Hartley now firmly entrenched as the Saints' kicker of the future, there is little chance of Carney returning to New Orleans as a player next season. Nevertheless, Carney isn't calling it a career as an active player. He hopes to return to the field as a player in 2010.
"Well, I'm looking forward to my career as a player," said Carney. "If consultant is in the mix somewhere down the road, I'd be very pleased to do that. I enjoy doing this. But I would like to continue to play."
McMahon has little doubt that Carney still has a future on the field, noting he can "absolutely" still kick in the NFL.
"He's got 22 years in this league," said McMahon. "He's very fit. He was looking at film probably when he was a rookie. I mean, I would not put a ceiling on that guy."