Mason Crosby took a lot of heat today, and like it or not, he's earned it. No, he doesn't deserve death threats or people harassing him on Twitter, but like any player, coach, or GM with any NFL team, he can take criticism when its coming to him.
For all the fans who are calling for Crosby to be cut, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news (for you) is that he's not going anywhere soon. However, the good news (for you) is that the definition of "soon" is getting to be a much brighter light at the end of the tunnel, given his official two misses today (and technically, three misses, thanks to Jim Schwartz's laughable time out that should have allowed Mason to adjust).
First of all, as we go about deconstructing Crosby, let's get a couple arguments out of the way:
* "This isn't Crosby's fault. McCarthy should be calling better plays so that he doesn't have to kick so many field goals."
Nope. The offense struggled, and some of McCarthy's playcalls today were mind-boggling. But any time a kicker is trotted out to kick a field goal, its about the same as a player shooting a free throw in basketball. In fact, its like sending out a free throw specialist. His job is purely to hit that free throw, and really, there's no one else to blame. Rodgers can share some of his problems on poor protection, dropped passes, and bad playcalling. The decision to call a "field goal play" is pretty much totally on the snap/hold/kick, and that's Crosby's job.
Now, if Crosby was Max Zendejas, I might be a little more accommodating towards his long misses, including his 50-yarder today. But when you are a kicker of his stature and contract status, the expectation is that the 50-yarders-and-shorter are rare misses. Rare. And the kicks from the 50's should be given a reasonable (75% or better) shot of going through the uprights.
In short, Crosby doesn't need excuses. He needs to do his job.
* "The field goal misses didn't hurt us today."
No, it didn't. But that attitude of "just good enough" is what seemed to define the attitude about the Packers down the home stretch last season, when the defense started looking sieve-like and Rodgers' magic seemed to lose its luster. When the Packers met a playoff team in the "second season" where intensity turns up 150%, "just good enough" wasn't good enough anymore.
In short, we do need to be concerned about these misses, whether they make a difference right now in the win-lose column or not. Someday, likely in the playoffs or in a game with implications for the playoffs, the Packers will be sitting with 4th-and-5 on the other team's 34-yard line with seconds on the clock and a dangerously close score. We can't wait until it is imperative to fix the problem to fix the problem.
So, what's the issue? Is it mental or a mechanical problem? And the answer is: it's probably both. I wrote about Crosby and made the analogy to the golf game a few months ago (and kept waiting for Troy Aikman to give me a hat tip as he repeated it over and over today on the broadcast). Indeed, he is compensating, and overcompensating. That was pretty clear after the time out that negated his first wide-right kick. His other misses each went wide left.
He's thinking way too much about every muscle, every movement, every adjustment his body makes throughout his kick. Heck, I just went through this last night, going bowling for the first time in a few years. Hit three strikes in a row in the first game, had a relatively nice score of 158. But in my second game, I held on to the ball too long and threw a cross-lane gutter. I spent the rest of the game over-thinking my release, and lost the focus I needed to properly aim and curve the ball. Second game: 106.
But, watching his kicks today, I noticed something out of the ordinary, especially on the final one that he made. The ball is taking some sharp, almost random slices to either side. Going back and thinking about his misses, you're never seeing smooth, straight-line kicks that just slowly steer away from the goal posts in a long arc. His kicks always suddenly veer left or right on the ascent. Lately, those sudden veerings have just kept going one way or another, resulting in huge misses you could see coming a mile away.
But on today's made field goal, you saw a sudden swerve mid-flight to the right, which then steadied itself and resulted in sliding inside the right goal post. It's almost like he doesn't know which way it is going to swerve after he kicks it, like it has three "swerve checkpoints" along the kick and they just have to average out to go straight.
This, to me, is a mechanical issue, and goes back to a long-time criticism of Shawn Slocum, who finds it necessary to play with his kicker's mechanics when he doesn't need to (and fails to intervene when he should). Crosby's already gone through a litany of excuses with Slocum...he's rushing his kicks, he's kicking too hard, he's overcompensating, he needs to simplify things.
In the end, the problem seems to be with how he's actually striking the ball...the actual location where his foot hits the ball and how he's following through on the kick. It's giving his attempts a "knuckleball" feel to them...kind of like a knuckleball pitcher doesn't quite know where his pitches are going to land, but they'll certainly fool the batter into looking for a strike when its not even close. The movement of the knuckleball is effective in baseball, but not for an NFL kicker.
And the analogy goes, if you want to stop throwing knuckleballs, get your knuckles off the ball.
So, Crosby has his work cut out for him, and judging from the look on his face today, he's entering the dangerous stage that Brett Conway hit during preseason in 1997, after missing five field goal attempts in a game and injuring himself by overkicking the next day in practice. He freaked out. He took his mental quandary and made it a physical quandary, which then became even more of a mental quandary.
This is a critical time in Crosby's career, and deconstructing both his mental mechanics and his physical mechanics at the same time is going to be why Shawn Slocum gets paid the big bucks.
In the end, fixing Mason Crosby would end up being a lot better in the long run for the Packers. Sure, there are plenty of free agent kickers out there, but you don't have to look far to realize you are far more likely to end up with a Max Zendajas than a Jan Stenerud. But, if the problems are NOT fixed, Crosby will be worth no more than any of those kickers, and that's a terrible way for his career to end in Green Bay.
C.D. Angeli is a feature writer for CheeseheadTV.com, and co-host of Cheesehead Radio, part of the Packers Talk Radio Network at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.