GREEN BAY - As the second quarter wound down at Lambeau Field in a game the Green Bay Packers would lose decidedly to the Dallas Cowboys, coach Mike McCarthy used his timeouts in hopes of giving the ball back to his offense.
A beautiful punt by Jacob Schum had pinned the Cowboys at their own 3-yard line with 60 seconds remaining in the half. McCarthy believed the defense could force a three-and-out that would flip the field position in the Packers’ favor. If the Cowboys punted from deep in their own half, the Packers were likely to take over near midfield with half a minute still to play.
“To me, my decision was based on the confidence I have in our defense and the confidence I have in our field-goal kicker,” McCarthy said after the game. “It really had nothing to do with our offense.”
And while the possession played out differently than McCarthy would have hoped — the Cowboys covered 97 yards in 33 seconds for a backbreaking touchdown — his rationale demonstrated the breadth of his faith in kicker Mason Crosby. Had the plan worked, McCarthy said he trusted Crosby to a distance of 62 or 63 yards as time expired.
Such belief is rooted in both long- and short-term origins. Crosby entered 2016 having made 97 of 111 field-goal attempts over the last three years and 141 of 143 extra points during that same span. His lowest field-goal percentage in any of those seasons was 81.8 percent, which was still above his career average of 79.7.
This year, Crosby made his first 12 field goals before having one blocked against the Chicago Bears. It was the second-best streak of his career in terms of consecutive field goals to begin a season. His career high came in 2011, when Crosby made his first 16 kicks.
“I feel like I had a really good offseason, had a good plan in place, felt like my workload was what it needed to be," Crosby said. "I feel like (now) I’m getting really quality reps and not over-kicking, which is good, and making sure I just go out and I trust it.
“I feel good with how it started as far as hitting the ball. My ball striking has been solid. I feel like I’ve been very consistent with my field goals.”
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The encouraging start is more impressive given the shuffling of specialists in the last calendar year. It began in December, when veteran long snapper Brett Goode tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a game against the Oakland Raiders. In walked rookie Rick Lovato, who fielded the Packers’ call while working in his family’s sandwich shop in New Jersey.
Then veteran punter Tim Masthay, Crosby's holder, was let go in late August, and punter Jacob Schum was claimed off waivers before the final exhibition game. Then Lovato was released during final roster cuts. Then, one day after Lovato’s departure, general manager Ted Thompson re-signed Goode to take over the role he had held since 2008.
“Obviously (I was) really comfortable with Tim for all these years and just knew what it was going to look like, going to be like,” Crosby said of the holds on field-goal attempts. “Jake’s done a great job of coming in (and playing well). We talk about it and just make sure he puts it down and has it leaning the way I like and I’m able to see it as long as possible before I hit it. That’s the biggest thing: Get it down quick so if I need to adjust if something actually happens, then I can. But we haven’t had any issues there. We work really hard at that timing and that rhythm.”
Added Schum: “I’ve worked with a lot of kickers over the years, so I got very comfortable with holding. It’s not really an issue with me. It’s just, ‘How do you want the ball held? OK.’ I’ll get it down and he seemed to really like how quick I got the ball down. We just keep building off that.”
Schum, who was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said it took him one day to feel comfortable with Crosby’s preferences on field goals, and from that point forward the goal was to build continuity through a high volume of reps. With no issues holding and no issues with ball striking — Crosby was 32-for-35 on field goals after three weeks of training camp — the focus turned instead to the details.
Just like a position player, Crosby watches film on each of his kicks. And because he is confident in his mechanics, Crosby homes in on ball flight instead.
Similarly, Crosby wastes no time tinkering with his actual swing during pregame warmups. Instead, he examines the wind and the playing surface at both ends of the field, which will influence ball flight and plant leg, respectively.
“As long as my week of work, my process is solid going into a game,” Crosby said, “I can just go out during pregame and really just make sure I know what the footing is going to be, what the wind in the stadium is and then just cut it loose and do my best to perform.”
His perfect start was halted Thursday night against the Bears, when Crosby made his first two kicks (32 yards, 40 yards) before things turned sour. Midway through the fourth quarter he missed a PAT for the first time since 2014, and just the fifth time in his 10-year career. Late in the fourth quarter he had a 31-yard field goal blocked when guard Lane Taylor was pushed back in protection and Akiem Hicks swatted the ball aside. The kick might have been a touch low as well.
But entering Sunday’s slate of games there were just four kickers who had yet to miss a field-goal attempt this season: Matt Bryant of Atlanta (12/12), Justin Tucker of Baltimore (15/15), Adam Vinatieri of Indianapolis (16/16) and Greg Zuerlein of Los Angeles (9/9). Two of the four play in domed stadiums. Another plays in drought-gripped California. Only Tucker of the Ravens endures a climate comparable to Green Bay.
Still, Crosby is right on their heels after making 12 of his first 13 kicks.
“He’s so consistent,” McCarthy said. “ … I’m glad he’s our kicker.”