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If misery loves company, Los Angeles Chargers GM Tom Telesco and Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer have gotten quite the kick out of Bears GM Ryan Pace’s harrowing three-plus-year quest to stabilize his wobbliest position, since the ill-advised release of franchise scoring leader Robbie Gould.
Pace has swung and missed five times — four failed signings and one peculiar waiver claim, all of veterans — none of them more spectacularly than the four-year, $15 million deal for Cody Parkey, making him the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid kicker.
Parkey, of course, will earn $3.5 million in 2019, costing more than $5 million combined against the Bears’ cap over the next two years despite being released last week. A “double-doink” postseason miss at the buzzer to culminate a year when his 76.7 percent conversion rate ranked last in the NFL among kickers with more than 21 attempts will do that.
But you already knew all that.
Telesco was hired in 2013, two years before Pace, and inherited an established veteran in PK Nick Novak. Novak posted a combined 88.9 percent conversion rate in his first two seasons, before Telesco identified his replacement, UDFA Josh Lambo.
“Josh was undrafted. We had targeted him as the guy,” Telesco told PFW earlier this month at the NFL scouting combine. “We got him after the draft and he won the job. Felt good about it.”
And seemingly with good reason, as Lambo earned All-Rookie honors in 2015 while Novak lasted only two more full NFL seasons.
But Lambo struggled to sustain his success and, after two years with the Bolts, was beat out in his third offseason by fellow undrafted placekicker, Georgia Southern’s Younghoe Koo.
Koo’s NFL start couldn’t have been more ominous, with back-to-back 44-yard misses of would-be game-winners in Weeks 1-2. Though he rebounded by converting his next six combined field goal and extra point attempts, at 0-4, the Chargers pulled the plug on Koo, re-signing Novak, who injured his back only a few weeks later.
Despite the worst kicking situation in football — five guys attempting at least one kick, with the group combining a league-worst 66.7 percent conversion rate — the Chargers would win nine of their final 12 games but miss out on their first postseason under Telesco in a tiebreaker with the 9-7 Buffalo Bills.
“For us, whether by injuries or production, it was just a swing and a miss,” Telesco said. “So you get back in the batter’s box and keep swinging. That’s the way we did it. You just keep scouting it until you find the right guy. It’s not easy though.
So Telesco swung again last offseason, signing veteran Caleb Sturgis to a two-year, $4.5 million deal. But after the ex-Eagle became the first kicker since 1979 to miss a field goal and extra point in three consecutive games, the 6-2 Chargers replaced Sturgis in November with UDFA Michael Badgley.
All Badgley did was connect on 20-of-22 FGAs and 29-of-30 PATs, including 5-of-6 on field goals to help lift the Bolts past the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round.
“Mental toughness is a big part of it, but trying to gauge that is hard,” Telesco explained. “In a workout, you can’t gauge that. You have to talk to people wherever he played before — whether it was college or his last pro team — to get a feel for that.”
Speaking of the wild-card round, Zimmer’s kicking agony in Minnesota began there following the 2015 season, when Blair Walsh badly missed a 27-yard chip shot in the closing seconds of one of the coldest NFL games ever to halt the Vikings’ 11-5 division-title season.
“I've thought about that an awful lot, with the kicking situation we've had for the five years that I've been there,” Zimmer said at the combine. “I think part of it is that we allow them — especially a young guy — to make some mistakes, make sure they understand that we're behind them.”
Walsh wasn’t a young guy at the time of his infamous miss, but the Vikings have struggled to replace him over the past three seasons.
It’s likely, then, Zimmer was referring to Daniel Carlson, the first specialist drafted last April (No. 167 overall), who was waived after only two weeks, following a pair of OT misses vs. the Green Bay Packers.
Minnesota, like the ’17 Chargers, barely missed the playoffs, with its early-season kicking instability looming large.
“You sit there and you think about, 'We missed the 27-yard field goal against Seattle in the playoffs,' and then this happens, and you bring a guy in and he misses extra points. Then maybe you're a little bit more jumpy than maybe you should be, I think. It's like everything else. You might overreact or under-react, and you've got to try to figure it out the right way."
The Vikings pivoted from Carlson to ex-Cowboy Dan Bailey, who converted only 75 percent of his FGs — more than 10 points below his career average — but was re-signed Tuesday to a one-year deal that maxes out at $2 million.
Carlson, who was signed in October by the Raiders, converted 16-of-17 attempts and inspired confidence he might be the heir to Sebastian Janikowski.
Lambo? His 92.7 conversion rate with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2017-18 is a franchise record, and he recently parlayed his success into a four-year, $15.5 million extension.
Does any of this sound familiar, Bears fans? Gould, the 49ers’ franchise-tag recipient, is set to earn a league-high $5 million in 2019, after his 96 percent FG rate since 2017 ranks as the second-highest in NFL history over any two-year span.
Pace vowed to leave no stone unturned this offseason to conquer his potentially fatal flaw as an NFL decision maker. Yet it’s worth noting that he’s so far identified a pair of players with no NFL experience in Redford Jones and Chris Blewitt to battle for the right to replace Parkey.
“We loved Cody Parkey,” Telesco told us. “We did. Still do. I know he had a bad year, but we loved him. To me that’s not a miss in signing him — it just maybe didn’t work out this past year. But he’s a good kicker.”
Still, Pace so far this offseason targeting youngsters is a 180 from Pace’s most frequented avenue of signing veterans at the position. It’s certainly possible he still considers a known quantity, such as ex-Falcon Matt Bryant. But it’s interesting to hear from the two men who arguably have spent the most time in Pace’s shoes extol the virtues after their own missteps of practicing patience with young kickers.
“Badgley kicking every day and us seeing him every day [is how we became comfortable with a young guy],” Telesco said. “In practice, he was just drilling kicks. Confident. Ball height. Just really clean and confident. We saw it in practice, saw it in practice and then we got in games and he did it in games.
“The longer you’re with him, you start feeling more and more confident. But it’s not built overnight. It takes time. Sometimes it takes years.”
It took Telesco four years and myriad misses to arrive at Badgley. The Vikings have spent more than three years moving on from Walsh and their situation still isn’t completely settled.
“Since [cutting Gould], you know, we’ve been battling to get that position right. Our goal this offseason is to correct that and we will.”