The instances of trust litter the better part of the last 12 months. Motivation came in two different forms. And the technology might now be the string that is finally tying it all together.
All three individual factors have played a role in the redemption story of Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who made all five of his kicks during Green Bay's 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions Sunday and is now a perfect 9-for-9 to begin the 2013 season.
In fact, if you include the 2012 postseason and this year's preseason, Crosby has made 21 straight live-game kicks. No other kicker has a longer active streak in the NFL.
An easy whipping boy for fans who has put his job in serious jeopardy with critical misses on more than one occasion over the last calendar year, Crosby is now in groove. And there are few kickers better than Crosby when he gets in this kind of rhythm.
On Sunday, Crosby hit all five of his attempts straight and true. These weren't nail biters. The wind was a non factor. The second they came off the right foot of Crosby, it was clear the Packers were getting three points.
“Ever since Family Night, I’ve felt like I’ve really come into my own, come into the type of kicker I want to be, the type of kicker who makes kicks and guys rely on,” Crosby said. "I just feel really good with my timing and my tempo with my kicks.”
The roots of his redemption began with a deep trust instilled by the leaders of the organization, continued this summer with the right motivation and is now being fueled by technology's fresh look at kicking.
Lasting Trust Provides Opportunity
Crosby might consider himself lucky to kick for the Packers. Any other organization—one lacking the sometimes stubborn trust of general manager Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy—would have likely given him a pink slip by now. He's certainly provided the Packers every reason to cut him loose and start over at kicker, especially over the last year.
Fresh off a season in which he connected on a career-high 85.7 percent of his kicks (24-for-28), the occasionally fragile-minded Crosby hit new lows in 2012. He connected on his first five attempts of the year but then missed 13 of his next 24, finishing dead last in the NFL in kicking percentage (63.6). You'd have to go back to 2009 to find a kicker who made a lower percentage (Jason Elam, 63.2). And since 2000, only 12 kickers with at least 20 attempts have finished a season worse in terms of accuracy.
Any other NFL city, and Crosby is probably walking, either before the season ended or shortly after.
But the trusting Packers stood by Crosby, despite the growing likelihood that one of his misses was going to cost Green Bay a game. McCarthy stood at the podium every week and claimed Crosby to be his kicker, and he supported those words by continuing to trot No. 2 out to attempt kicks.
Asked if the Packers were making plans to change kickers in November, McCarty didn't blink: "The direction right now is we're sticking with Mason Crosby as our kicker."
Even as the struggles continued and intensified, the narrative remained the same.
"At the end of the day, Mason will be our kicker and that's my focus," McCarthy said, after Crosby missed two kicks during a December game in Chicago.
Eventually, the confidence translated into a turnaround. Crosby made his final four kicks of the regular season and both postseason attempts. There was a calming sense that Crosby had once again kicked himself out of a bad slump, and quiet waters were ahead. But the tides were in for another shift to begin August.
The Packers could have cut Crosby following his disaster at the Family Night scrimmage. He missed five of his eight attempts in the controlled environment, and he looked bad doing it. His body language reflected a kicker that had lost all confidence in his craft. There was frustration written all over his face, but it was the ugly kind of frustration that only comes when you've run out of answers.
Once again, the Packers gave Crosby another chance. And with a tiny Italian breathing down his neck, Crosby the cat gave himself another life.
Motivation Brings Out the Best
For the better part of his tenure in Green Bay, Crosby has operated without direct competition. Sure, there was a "competition" in 2007 with incumbent kicker Dave Rayner, but the sixth-round rookie was always the overwhelming favorite to win the job.
After beating out Rayner in '07, Crosby went five straight training camps without another kicker joining him. It was his job, and his job alone. The idea of competition dwindled even further in July of 2011 when the Packers gave Crosby a five-year deal worth $14.75 million.
Maybe complacency set in. His dedication to the craft could have deteriorated. Either way, Crosby wasn't the kicker in 2012 that he was in 2011, and the Packers decided one remedy to that problem could be bringing in a kicker this summer.
In came Giorgio Tavecchio, who previously kicked at the University of Cal before spending training camp with the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. The Italian stood just 5'9", but he provided a big impact on Crosby this summer.
"I don't think you can look past any performance throughout your team and think that competition's (not) going to help, regardless of how they performed the year before," McCarthy said.
Crosby finished training camp by making 24 of his last 25 kicks in the practice and games combined. The light switch suddenly flicked back on, and the Packers had no other choice but to bring Crosby back as their kicker to start this season.
But his return also came with a caveat, in the form of a restructured contract loaded with incentives.
The Packers reduced Crosby's base salary in 2013 from $2.4 million to just $800,000, but gave Crosby a chance to earn the entire $1.6 million back by making kicks. Two different roster bonuses of $400,000 will kick in after Weeks 5 and 10, and a total of $800,000 is available if Crosby makes 85 percent or better of his kicks this season (his compensation drops to $200,000 if he makes 75 percent, or $400,000 if he hits 80).
It's probably no coincidence that the threat of a another kicker taking his job and a new contract laced with performance-based incentives have run parallel with a perfect start to Crosby's 2013 season. Motivation, when levied in the right way, can be a strong stimulus for positive change.
However, don't discount the impact that a new technology—introduced by a former NFL kicker—has had on Crosby's 9-for-9 start.
Spark Motion Sparks Consistency
Matt Stover won two Super Bowls and made a Pro Bowl over 20 celebrated years in the NFL. He retired as the fifth highest scorer in league history and holder of the longest streak of games with a field goal (38). But his impact on the game's kickers hasn't yet disappeared.
Stover now uses an computer application called "Spark Motion" to help train and re-train kickers. The idea is very simple: A Stover client uploads video of his kicks to the app, which Stover can access via Ipad. Spark Motion then allows Stover to slow down the video and analyze every part of the kicking motion, frame-by-frame. This information is used to correct flaws and develop consistency in the entire kicking process.
Crosby, along with Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee, is a Stover client.
“I use video to really do a full thorough job of coaching these guys,” Stover said, via Forbes. “I think any golfing coach or hitting coach would tell you the same thing. Why do you think they are better now than they ever have been? They have great coaching, great feedback and the tools to do it.”
Watch Crosby's technique through four games this season and you'll see the fruits of Stover's labor. Every run up and follow through looks like a mirror image of the last. There's no hitch; no wasted motion. Crosby is putting his foot through the ball and connecting with thunderous power and surprising accuracy.
Crosby has always possessed one of the NFL's most naturally talented kicking legs. Now he has a respected veteran of the game using both his experience and cutting edge technology to mold the rough edges in his game.
Stover's help might now represent the final touches on a process that began with lasting trust and was pushed along by the right motivation.
"I'm proud of him," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He went through some stuff in training camp, took a lot of flak last year obviously. But we're glad he's our guy."
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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