In the game of football, there comes a time in the game when a team will rely on a player whose sole purpose is to kick a ball through the uprights to win games. These players are generally plucked from the soccer field and told to kick the ball between the uprights instead of through a goal. Some teams continually change kickers as often as someone may change their underwear looking for that rare kicker who shows consistency and reliability. Rarely does a kicker stick with one team for longer than just a few years but the Bengals have one in Shayne Graham, who has been with the Bengals since 2003 during which time he established himself as a premier kicker. His career field goal average is fourth best in the NFL at 85.2%, plus he holds the team record at 86.7%. His best season as a Bengal is 2007 with a FG average at 91.2%. This all came after struggling in his first two seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers where his average was 73%.
Shortly after the 2008 season (when he finished with an 87.5% field goal average) Mike Brown thought it fitting that Graham was worthy of the Franchise Tag, giving the Bengals sole negotiating rights for his services. After some going back and forth, they agreed to a one year deal for the 2009 season where he was to be paid top five kicker money. Well, he got paid and one could make the argument that he took the money and ran as this season was his worst as a Bengal. Couple this with numerous missed opportunities during important games; is it prudent for the team to re-sign him to a long term contract?
For the season, Graham finished 23-28 including a 53 yard field goal against Cleveland which tied his career long. Of the five misses, two were blocked and two others were attempted from beyond the 50 yard mark. Only one of these misses could be attributed to a loss with a miss against Oakland late in the third quarter that would have given the Bengals a 20-10 lead making it a two possession game. With the thought that the defense was able to prevent the Raiders from scoring, those three points loomed large (as my wife would say) as they scored 10 points in the final 1:39 to win the game. Graham makes that field goal, the game potentially goes to overtime which yes, could have ended in a loss but it could have been a win as well.
During the regular season, Graham missed only one extra point, which was blocked against the Cleveland Browns in their first meeting of the season. In that game, the Browns somehow found a way to play the Bengals close, but Graham showed he can be clutch when the game was on the line. The Bengals had to play catch-up in the fourth quarter falling behind 20-14 before they scored the game-tying touchdown. The only thing that was needed to take the lead with less than two minutes to go was to make the extra point. It was blocked by the big mitt of Shaun Rodgers to send the game into overtime. After exchanging punts six times in overtime, the Bengals put together a drive that put Graham in his comfort zone at Cleveland's 13 yard line. Considering how the kicking game struggled prior to this game, just lining up correctly was nerve racking. A perfect snap ensued and Graham sent the ball straight through the uprights for the game clincher with no time left.
In the playoff game which became a rematch of the regular season finale against the New York Jets, Graham may have sealed his fate as he missed two field goals in the second half. Each of those misses are considered by many to be little more than an extra point, as the distance was similar. Making the first attempt at the end of the third quarter could have been a subtle momentum changer by cutting the deficit 20-10. Missing the second one would have brought the score to 24-17 becoming a one possession game; they might have been able to overcome the deficit despite not having any timeouts or challenges. Sure, having to recover the ensuing on-side kickoff would have to be factored in as the odds are against the kicking team recovering it. Making those field goals makes the score 24-20 that would have given the ending of the game a new complexion.
Graham came to the Bengals from the Panthers after losing his spot to John Kasey in 2003. Since his arrival, he has set a standard that has caused most of us to forget about Bengals kicking stalwarts Doug Pelfrey and Jim Breech. He is considered one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the NFL and has set numerous team records during his time. However, this season seems different. He seemed to struggle when the circumstance demanded reliability and consistency. Statistically, this season was one of his worst since becoming a Bengal. Now he is an unrestricted free agent and can sign with anyone whom he may choose. Do the Bengals resign someone that has a proven track record just coming off a bad season; or, do they look for another kicker that may not have yet established himself as a player who can be counted on?