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With Shayne Graham Departed, Bengals Look Towards Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent

It wasn't always true that Shayne Graham made you nervous. In five of his seven seasons with the Bengals, Graham converted at least 87.1% of his field goal attempts. He even converted 50% of his 14 career 50-yard or more attempts. Up until last year, aside from a few botched snaps that you'd be hard-pressed to blame on him, Graham was solid. Clutch? Not so much. If it wasn't the two missed field goals against the Jets during last year's Wild Card game -- makeable attempts from 28 yards and 35 yards -- it was Graham's 37-yard missed attempt that would have given the Bengals a seven-point lead with five minutes left against the Oakland Raiders. This is important because the 25-yard conversion two minutes later would have sealed the game, giving the Bengals a 10-point lead and likely the victory against a 2-7 team. There's the infamous missed field goal that would have beaten the Steelers in 2006 and sealed a berth for the playoffs that year. Instead, that missed attempt led to a depressingly long Santonio Holmes touchdown reception in overtime on New Year's Eve night and a perfectly warm coach during the post-season. There's Graham's missed 47-yard field goal attempt at the end of overtime against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 that would have broken the 13-13 tie and given Cincinnati the win; though sometimes blaming a kicker for that game turns into a trivial stretch, considering the team's offense gave up eight sacks while only converting four of 20 third down for first downs.

What's being said isn't new to you. Many of Graham's issues came to head this year. Combined with botched Brad St. Louis snaps that rivaled 50-yard overthrows from a strong-armed quarterback, Graham's success rate dramatically decreased. More importantly, the impact of two critical missed playoff attempts against the Jets crippled Graham. Confidence shaken and embarrassed by his performances, his demons (as Marvin Lewis calls them) turned to suffocation and any chance of returning to the city that helped place him on the NFL map was merely for entertainment and perhaps as a last resort.

Still, Graham left Cincinnati as one of the best place kickers in franchise history, converting 86.8% of his field goal attempts -- nearly 10% better than Doug Pelfrey who is the franchise's second-most accurate kicker. Other achievements include:

  • field goals against Baltimore in 2007 is a franchise record for most field goals in a game.
  • ...31 field goals in a season (2007) is a franchise record.
  • ...21 consecutive field goals in 2007 is a franchise record -- he also owns the second most consecutive field goals with 17 between 2005 and 2006.
  • ...131 points scored in 2005 is a franchise record for a season from any Bengals player.
  • ...779 career points scored is second to only Jim Breech's 1,151 points scored.

Again, none of this is new. You've known for quite some time that you could argue that Graham is one of, if not the, best place kickers in franchise history. You can argue that, if you wish it. But I know where you're mind is at, I can see through you, knowing that your fingers are aching to throw out the obvious point. In summary, Graham's results during clutch performances negates all of that. His missed field goals during critical moments throws all of his great achievements out of the window. Unfortunate. But true.

As a result of his demons, Graham didn't bother re-signing with the Bengals and joined intra-division rival, the Baltimore Ravens, to compete against Billy Cundiff, whose best season (79.3%) doesn't even surpass Graham's worst (82.1%) with the Bengals.

Greater the question becomes: so what now? Like the Ravens, the Bengals will hold a competition between two kickers.

Drafted 202nd overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 2005, David Rayner has spent his entire career on at least five teams during respective regular seasons. Unsigned, he sat out 2009 and his career field goal conversion rate (71.2%) is 15% worse than Graham's with Cincinnati. He's converted just one 50-yard field goal (a 54-yarder). Replacing Graham in 2008 who was rehabbing from a groin injury, Rayner converted his lone field goal attempt (a 26-yarder) and successfully converted all three point after attempts. Rayner's 64.3-yard average on kickoffs is three yards further than Graham's 61.8-yard career average. While Rayner doesn't have the missed clutched field goals that Graham does, does it really project confidence that Rayner will provide the accuracy and consistency that Graham once did? Training camp will go a long way to prove how well Rayner will perform in 2010; however, until you're kicking in the pressure-heavy regular season with the game, and the season for that matter, on the line, we won't know.

Rayner's competition partner comes to Cincinnati with a bigger, and more proven, pedigree. Drafted by the New York Jets in the second round in 2005, Mike Nugent returns to the state of Ohio in what could become a story of a struggling player returning home and finding comfort and rediscovering his talent and abilities. In 2006, Nugent converted 88.9% of his field goals, by far his best career-season. After three full seasons in which he averaged 102 points scored per season with New York, Nugent hit an injury wall during the Jets first game in 2008, spending the season on the team's inactive list. He journeyed through Tampa Bay in 2009, converting only two of six field goal attempts until he was released after the fourth game of the season. When former Bengals place kicker Neil Rackers fell to injury with Arizona, the Cardinals signed Nugent, who converted both field goal attempts during his two-game stay. He was released from Arizona just as their season concluded.

The Bengals signed Nugent on April 23.

Again, it's hard to argue that Nugent's career and accomplishments are close to what Graham did over his career with the Bengals. The greater question is, how has Nugent performed in pressure situations.

Six field goals in Nugent's career either won or tied the game late in the fourth quarter; a quarter in which Nugent converted 84% (21 of 25) of his field goals throughout his career. Additionally, during his first three seasons with the Jets, Nugent's fourth quarter field goals brought New York to within a touchdown or a field goal five times. Some of his misses have hurt the Jets also. Against the New Orleans Saints in 2005, Nugent missed a fourth quarter attempt with 14 seconds left in the game that would have won it for New York. However, the attempt was a 53-yarder (he's converted three of nine field goals from 50 yards or more in his career). Against the New England Patriots in 2007, Nugent's missed 35-yard field goal attempt with 2:17 left in the game would have brought the Jets to within a touchdown -- New York got the ball back with 1:42 left in the game; a converted field goal would allowed the Jets to drive on this possession to tie (or win) the game.

In my research, I've concluded that Nugent's success in the fourth quarter outweigh the missed field goals in which his team lost. Still, those successes in large part ended in 2008 when he no longer had top billing as being a team's primary kicker through a full season.

It's hard to find a perfect place kicker. In fact, that quest might be a pointless as searching for the Holy Grail, or any other Indiana Jones adventure where a refrigerator protects you from an atom bomb. Comparatively speaking, neither Nugent or Rayner come near Graham's overall successes in his career. But if the Bengals are to make that leap towards the next level (winning a playoff game), they'll need a kicker that they can depend on during pressure situations. Graham didn't fit that mold. Will Nugent? Will Rayner? Here's a comparative look in their careers (including Shayne Graham).

  Shayne Graham David Rayner Mike Nugent
FG % 85.2% 71.2% 79.0%
Total FG's 196 42 79
20-29 Yard FG% 94.1% 93.8% 96.4%
30-39 Yard FG% 89.3% 68.4% 82.4%
40-49 Yard FG% 80.3% 68.4% 69.2%
50+ Yard FG % 50.0% 20.0% 33.3%
Avg. Kickoffs 61.8 64.3 60.2
Touchbacks 45 16 14
% KOs for TBs 7.9% 7.8% 6.1%

% KOs for TBs - Percentage of kickoffs that went for touchbacks.