Key to clutch: Inside Crosby’s playoff streak

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY – It’s described as an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Time slows down, then speeds up. The earth rattles, thoughts race. Your heart beats out of your chest.

Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby (2) celebrates his long field goal to take the lead late in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX Sunday, January 15, 2017.

For a moment, you feel an adrenaline rush. It’s easy to hyperventilate. There are butterflies, unfettered nerves.

Then everything freezes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Lawrence Tynes, who sent the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowls with two overtime field goals. “I didn’t feel anything. I was just numb.”

The ball leaves your foot. That’s when slow motion begins. “Like a movie,” Tynes remembered. You track its flight, along with 21 other players, a stadium full of people, millions watching at home.

All eyes follow the ball. Always on the ball.

The kicker knows first. Usually, it’s immediately after impact. His spot on the football is just a couple square inches, impossible precision. Hit outside the target, and the kick has no chance.

Sometimes, suspense lingers a bit longer.

Mason Crosby tracked his kick through AT&T Stadium’s climate-controlled air Sunday evening, and for a split second that felt like a minute, he didn’t know. His game-winning field goal headed dead for the left upright, more left than he aimed.

“Just get off the upright,” Crosby remembers telling the football.

That moment is panic. There’s a reason late field goals are the only play in football when prayers are said before the snap.

A blur to everyone else, time slowed enough in Crosby’s mind to track the spin. Find a replay of that kick, watch it in slow motion, and you’ll see the football “wobbling” slightly right over left, not quite end over end. Crosby noticed in real time.

That’s when he finally knew.

“Usually, those kind of fall to the right,” Crosby said. “So I was hopeful it was going to keep turning, and once I saw it kind of playing out and going inside the upright, I knew I had the leg for it. So felt pretty confident.”

Crosby enters this week’s NFC title game — where a Super Bowl trip can hinge on one kick — with his confidence never higher.

The Green Bay Packers kicker followed his 56-yard, go-ahead field goal with 93 seconds left in Sunday’s divisional round at Dallas with not one, but two successful 51-yard, game-winning kicks, thanks to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s timeout.

Crosby’s final kick snuck inside that left upright like a southpaw’s backdoor slider. It was his 23rd straight conversion in the playoffs, extending an NFL record. No other kicker has made 20 straight in the postseason.

In the regular season, 23 straight field goals is a lot. In the playoffs? Crosby’s streak, through six straight postseasons, has impressed even the game’s best kickers.

“I think Mason is one of the most clutch kickers in the game right now,” Baltimore Ravens two-time All-Pro Justin Tucker said. “To be able to come through from 56 and for the win from 51, those kicks that far back in the final two minutes in that game were two of the most impressive kicks I’ve seen in a long time. It was really cool to watch.”

There is never a dull kick in the playoffs. Crosby put the Packers up six points with two minutes left in Super Bowl XLV. He made all five kicks in the NFC title game two years ago, the last sending it to overtime. On Sunday, he made a pair of 50-yard kicks in the same game for the first time in his career.

Now he gets to kick in another dome. Coach Mike McCarthy called Crosby a “machine” indoors.

He’s automatic in the month of January, period.

“I love the playoffs,” Crosby said. “I love the one-game seasons. Your regular season ends, and you kind of start fresh. It’s a whole new thing, and you just really focus in that one week, for that one game. If you don’t win that one, you’re not moving forward. So you really lock in.”

Crosby puts himself in the middle of a thriller, and he doesn’t flinch. He expects his kick to go in every time, no exceptions. It has become routine, and that’s perhaps most important.

Routine is key to being clutch.

‘Everybody thought we were nuts’

A small group of players — sometimes eight, maybe nine — followed their coach into the same room every Friday night. Lights off, they spread out on the floor, finding a comfortable position.

These “visualization” sessions inside the University of Colorado football program were not mandatory. Most players found something better to do the night before games. Crosby almost never missed.

Once settled, head coach Gary Barnett allowed time for players to fall into deep relaxation. Then he vividly described what awaited them on game day. For 20, sometimes 30 minutes, he explained every step, every detail. Start with the bus ride to the stadium. Imagine the locker room, stepping out onto the grass field. Then picture the game.

Crosby, among Barnett’s most loyal students, would close his eyes and conceive every possible scenario.

“The most pressure situation that he could possibly think of,” Barnett said. “Whether it’s weather, whether it’s a bad snap, whether it’s bad footing. We always went through all the scenarios of the most difficult part of his job. No matter what happens, he had gone through it, and executed it to perfection the night before, the day before, so nothing came as a surprise.

“I always had so much confidence in Mason anyway, but by the time he left a visualization session, he knew he was ready.”

As a kid, Crosby never wanted to be a kicker. Maybe a receiver. Maybe safety. He played both at Georgetown High, deep in the heart of Texas.

It wasn’t until late in Crosby’s high school years his dream of kicking in the NFL sprouted. Barnett remembers hearing Crosby for the first time at a summer kicking camp. Facing the other direction, he turned his head on a swivel as soon as Crosby crushed his first kick.

“It was like being on the driving range with a professional,” Barnett said. “Everybody else’s club sounds one way, and the professional’s sounds completely different. That’s the way it was. Everybody turned in camp and was like, ‘OK, I guess this is over.’

“I offered him a scholarship before the ball hit the ground.”

After signing with Colorado, Crosby still preferred playing full time. He’s a kicker, Barnett said, who wanted to make every tackle on kickoffs. In a pinch, Barnett swears he would’ve used Crosby as a backup safety.

Over time, kicking grew on Crosby.

“It started,” Crosby said of the NFL, “becoming something I could imagine happening.”

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Barnett watched Crosby’s two field goals Sunday night. They brought back memories. He has seen the 10th-year pro, the second-longest-tenured Packer, make so many big kicks over the years, Barnett said, he lost track.

Crosby’s last game-winning field goal of 50 yards came in his junior season, a 2005 trip to Kansas State. Colorado was playing for an outright lead in the Big 12 North. Kansas State was led by a receiver named Jordy Nelson.

“Yeah,” Nelson said, “he rubs that in all the time. That’s been multiple conversations.”

Inside the final minute, a muffed punt gave the Buffs possession at Kansas State’s 26-yard line. Barnett, confident in his kicker, told his quarterback to center the ball. He did, twice, taking a couple steps backward each time.

Colorado lost seven yards on two plays. A 43-yard attempt became a 50-yard kick.

“Everybody thought we were nuts,” Barnett said, “and we were. I didn’t tell him to take a loss.”

Crosby knocked it through anyway. Barnett figured his kicker already visualized that exact situation earlier in the week.

Even now, Crosby said, he continues visualization. Every week, he schedules “quiet times” away from the noise. It’s the mental maintenance required for kickers.

Quarterbacks practice throwing mechanics. Linebackers practice tackling technique. Centers practice snaps.

Kickers practice calming their nerves.

“You lie if you say your heart’s not racing,” Crosby said, “and you don’t feel the adrenaline, but trying to manage that and trying to stay smooth and calm in that moment, that takes practice. It takes reps. It takes all that stuff, and visualizing those moments helps prior to it.

“So during the week, I do that. Visualize, put myself in that moment, and try to feel that energy so you can breathe through it and make sure that when that time comes, it doesn’t become too big, doesn’t overwhelm me.”

Every kicker handles the nerves in his own way. Back when he played, Tynes wore earplugs every game, home and away. Tucker makes the sign of the cross before every kick.

“I think it’s important,” Tucker said, “to embrace the fact that you’re excited and you’re emotional. To see an important kick go through the uprights, you know it’s the difference between a win and a loss, I’d say the most overwhelming feeling would be that of relief.”

Crosby’s comfort is his routine. Each Sunday follows the same script, recitable on memory.

He starts warmups at the same time. He takes the same number of kicks from the same spots on the field, the same yardage. Once the Packers cross midfield, he takes kicks into the net once after first down, once after second down, then always watches third down.

On days he doesn’t kick at practice, Crosby will walk the field. Like a putter reading the green, he finds specific spots. Crosby stares at goalposts. He draws a line in his mind, visualizing the trajectory he wants his kick to follow.

He can do this, week after week, until he settles into a groove. Just as quickly, Crosby knows, his rhythm can disappear. Success is fragile at his position. A kicker’s life is black or white, either make or miss, with no shades of grey.

Crosby has lived both extremes.

‘He’s pretty darn good’

Tim Masthay chuckles over the phone. He finds this particular topic more exasperating than funny. Like a bad punchline that won’t go away.

It’s been four seasons since Crosby hit the skids, something Masthay knows happens to almost every kicker if they hang around long enough. Masthay, the Packers former punter, wonders if he’d still have a job had he responded to his own slump the way Crosby did after 2012.

Regardless, Crosby’s slump embedded itself in his story. That fall, one of the league’s best kickers lost his touch. Crosby made only 21-of-33 field goals, only 2-of-9 from 50 yards and beyond. His 63.6 percent conversion ranked dead last among the league’s 31 qualified kickers.

But that was also four seasons ago. An NFL eternity.

“The fact that it still gets brought up,” Masthay said, “it just always surprises me.”

The Packers could’ve cut Crosby, and nobody would blame them. Patience isn’t long for kickers. Barnett remembers talking with Crosby after the 2012 season during an annual offseason gathering at Colorado. Yes, Barnett said, his former kicker was worried.

Instead, the Packers did what most don’t. They stuck it out. Gave their kicker time and space. He’s rewarded them many times over, most recently Sunday.

“You’re judged by your performance,” McCarthy said, “but we always believed in the man of Mason Crosby, and obviously you can see why. The 2012 experience was not as rough on me as it was on Mason, because of the negativity that surrounded that. I think if you’d ask anybody internally, no one ever lost faith in him.”

Kicking is a small fraternity. Most who make it to the NFL meet each other along the way, develop relationships. Everyone is aware of how their counterparts are doing.

Tynes tracked Crosby’s progress since 2012. He knows not everyone survives the slump. This season, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh became its latest victim. Once an All-Pro, a 27-yard shank in last year’s playoffs sparked a downward spiral Walsh could not reverse. Still struggling in mid-November, the Vikings were left no choice but to release him.

That could’ve been Crosby. Instead, he came out better than before.

“I think that’s what made Mason who he is,” Tynes said. “You learn a lot more from your failures than you do your successes, and he’s mentally tough. Anyone that can battle that, it’s a challenge mentally, but if you’re mentally tough and strong, that’s all this position is. There’s been a million guys who can kick. Not a lot of people who can do it when the lights are on.

“Mason has done it, and Green Bay’s a very popular franchise. Everyone keeps up with them. His struggles were nationally documented every time he played, but it shows you what kind of person he is and what kind of mental toughness he has.”

Masthay, a longtime place-kick holder, shared the field during many of Crosby’s greatest triumphs.

He vividly remembers that 48-yard kick in Seattle, how Crosby threaded the football through a 15 mph crosswind. With 14 seconds, it may have been the most clutch play of the 2014 NFC title game, even if it’s mostly forgotten.

Certainly, Masthay said, that kick was among the game’s most difficult plays.

“His verbal language and his body language,” Masthay said, “he never seemed overmatched by any situation. So even in a kick like the one in Seattle, and I’m sure like the kicks he had to make in Dallas the other night, he just has a way about him where it seems like, ‘Man, I’m ready to do this, I expect to do it.’

“It doesn’t mean everything goes smooth all the time, but he’s pretty darn good.”

Crosby could get another crack Sunday. Instead of forcing overtime, perhaps one kick could put the Packers in their sixth Super Bowl.

Tynes’ life has never been the same since becoming a New York folk hero. He still sits courtside at Knicks games. When the JumboTron shows him before the second quarter, the arena applauds. Tynes said fans often buy him dinner and drinks.

It’s the power of the playoffs. When a kicker overcomes the nerves, it isn’t soon forgotten.

“I loved it,” Tynes said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to be the hero, right? I think Mason is one of those guys. They’re all built the same way. You can tell how he responded on Sunday. He’s one of those guys. You can tell he loves it. He obviously came through in a big way.”

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