GREEN BAY — There are two positions in the NFL that consistently affect a coach’s ability to sleep at night: quarterback and kicker.
The Green Bay Packers are set at quarterback — well, at starting quarterback anyway — but for the first time since 2013 they held a legitimate kicking competition during training camp.
With only Thursday night’s exhibition game against Kansas City remaining on the camp agenda, the Packers are close to a resolution in the competition between Mason Crosby, their kicker for the past 12 seasons, and strong-legged journeyman Sam Ficken.
Since Crosby has been near-perfect since returning from a calf injury early in camp, it is entirely possible the Packers have already made the decision to keep a kicker who, aside from a mysterious slump in 2012, has consistently ranked among the league’s better players at the position. Ficken has been a worthy adversary for Crosby but so far hasn’t thrown the knockout punch needed to dethrone the incumbent.
Still, the Packers aren’t ready to declare a winner, at least not publicly.
“I think it has been a pretty solid competition throughout,” coach Matt LaFleur said Tuesday.
General manager Brian Gutekunst also characterized the competition as healthy. Clearly, it brought out the best in Crosby, whose field-goal percentage had dipped just a bit the past two seasons.
“They’ve both done a really nice job,” Gutekunst said. “Obviously, Mason has a ton of experience. I think Sam’s done a nice job. I think everybody’s seen his leg strength. I think he’s probably proven that he can kick in this league. So, yeah, I think they’ve both done a nice job. They have one more shot at it Thursday night. We haven’t done that a lot around here, but to have two guys that you feel can kick in the NFL, that’s a nice thing to have.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Packers will keep only one of those kickers when the rosters are trimmed to 53 later this week. And though the $4.85 million in salary and bonuses Crosby will make this season is 10 times that of Ficken’s contract, this is not the time to start pinching pennies. Moving on from Crosby just to save money would be a colossal blunder for a team that desperately needs to get back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
For the Packers at this time, Crosby’s experience and reliability far outweigh any salary-cap savings and long-term potential that Ficken offers.
“That experience matters, at all positions,” Gutekunst said. “In scouting, we always talk about trying to predict the future. Their past is the best predictor of that. So it does matter. For the young guys at all the positions on our team, there’s no way they can combat that, right? They’ve just got to go out there and perform and make us feel more comfortable about moving on from guys who have a lot of experience. But Mason has been a premier kicker in this league for a long time. Obviously, he’s handled this stadium and this weather and you can’t ignore that stuff.”
The Packers would be wise not to ignore it. Although he turns 35 next week, Crosby is a sure thing, and having a kicker who is a sure thing is something every NFL team craves. Look no further than NFC North Division foes Chicago and Minnesota, two contenders that are flirting with disaster at kicker this season.
The Packers, on the other hand, have been as worry-free as any NFL team when it comes to kickers. For three decades, they’ve enjoyed uncommon stability at the position, with only New England, which has had Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski since 1996, coming close.
Except for Dave Rayner’s one season in 2006, Green Bay has had only three kickers of record in the past 30 years — Chris Jacke (1989-96), Ryan Longwell (1997-2005) and Crosby (2007-present). None had the strongest leg in the league, but all were reliable, clutch and fit easily into the locker room. The only other kicker employed by the Packers during that time was Dirk Borgognone, who filled in for two games when Jacke had a hamstring injury in 1995.
Compare the Packers’ five kickers in 30 years to their division rivals and the difference is startling. At one time or another, Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit have all been forced onto the kicking merry-go-round and, like many NFL teams that don’t understand the value of a kicker, had the hardest time getting off.
The Vikings have used 20 kickers since 1989 and the Bears 17. The Lions had Jason Hanson for 21 years, then went through four kickers in 2013 and 2014 alone before settling on Matt Prater.
Minnesota acquired kicker Kaare Vedvik from Baltimore just last week for a 2020 fifth-round draft pick and Chicago has staged an often-comical search for a kicker throughout the offseason, which raises an interesting possibility. Could the Packers cut a kicker on Saturday and face him in the regular-season opener the following Thursday night in Chicago?
“Those discussions have been had,” Gutekunst said. “But this time of year you’re really I think learning from (former Packers general manager) Ted (Thompson) that you’ve really got to focus on what’s best for your team and not worry too much about anything else.”
Bringing back Crosby would be best for the Packers — and for LaFleur’s sleep patterns.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org.