Published in DMagazine.com
When watching football, there are few things that make you feel as helpless as wanting a potential game-winning field goal to miss. That feeling increases in proportion to how close the attempt is under 45 yards. “ICE THE KICKER!” you might yell, wanting a timeout called just before the snap because someone, long ago, thought that was a good idea. Someone thought that with that timeout, an extra minute of thinking would get inside the kicker’s head. Icing the kicker might not even help. I sometimes wonder if the extra time only gives them a chance to take a deep breath and not feel as rushed.
But just when I think it’s pointless, I remember when Jason Garrett inexplicably iced his own kicker. The Cowboys then missed a field goal. Eh, maybe it works. And if it doesn’t, by the time you’re praying for a short field goal to miss, there’s nothing to lose in calling a timeout.
“Block it, miss it, block it, miss it, block it, miss it.” That’s what I repeatedly think when the opposing team is about to attempt a game-winning field goal against the Cowboys. Sometimes I’ll mumble it out loud as fast as I can. It’s what I did on Thanksgiving night as the Raiders lined up for a 29-yard field goal to win in overtime. From that distance, there’s seemingly a better chance of a field goal miss because of a snap and hold getting botched. Something like what happened on a Monday Night Game in 1997, when the Eagles did just that against the Cowboys. That night, I repeated my mantra for failure, and it just happened to coincide with the Eagles losing. So I’ve kept saying it because the same thing might happen again and because trying to kick an oddly shaped ball straight is hard.
Kicking is the most underrated skill in all of football. Underrated because everyone understands the mechanics of it all, and they seem simple enough. And because kickers aren’t usually fast or strong or big or quick—unless you’re David Buehler, who was an inconsistent kicker, so it didn’t matter if, in college, he was stronger and faster than some of his USC teammates. Buehler was the Cowboys’ kicker before Dan Bailey, who got here, made kicking look simple, and spoiled us all.
Great kickers, like Bailey was for several years, are rare. There are maybe three NFL teams who are entirely happy with their kickers in a given season. The other 29 teams are a week or two away from recycling one of the 40 other kickers who are just good enough to hang around the periphery of having a job in the league but not good enough to have long-lasting stability. Kickers who can make a game-winning field goal one week can miss one and perhaps even an extra point the next. If football is a Greek play where fans are the chorus inside the stadium as a theater, then kickers are the most tragic of all heroes.
If you’re reading this, then you likely already know that Las Vegas’ Daniel Carlson made his kick. He got named the game’s MVP and celebrated by taking a bite out of a turkey leg. That he’s a kicker and wore a cowboy hat while doing it made it feel like he was taunting us all. It was also a reminder that, lost in the four pass interference penalties against Anthony Brown, Zuerlein—like in the two-point loss to Tampa Bay in opening week—missed a long field goal and an extra point as the Cowboys lost by three in overtime. And with that, the Cowboys didn’t just lose their third of their last four games. They lost The Mexican Super Bowl.
If you know a Mexican American, chances are good they’re a fan of either the Cowboys or Raiders. Of course, not every Mexican American cheers for one of those teams. But of all the fan bases, those are the two most consistent. Not entirely unrelated, California and Texas—even though the Raiders don’t play there anymore—are the two states with the highest Hispanic populations in the country. I’d assume most Mexican families have someone who cheer for either the Cowboys or the Raiders. Los Vaqueros and Los Malosos. Unsurprising then that when the Cowboys and Raiders played this Thanksgiving, it drew the largest NFL regular season audience since 1990.
An estimated 38.5 million people watched the Cowboys’ season, which just a month ago looked so promising, continue to slide. Among those tens of millions were 16 watching from my house. Not all of us were Cowboys fans, but at least none of us were Raiders fans. The few Raiders fans in my family didn’t get an invite because, unrelated to our cheering interests, it’s the part of the family we aren’t as close to. But also, why would I want to increase the potential for a fight on Thanksgiving? There’s enough dislike between Cowboys fans for that. There was already enough postgame sadness going around, trying to get buried under another helping of pumpkin pie, without needing a constant reminder of what had happened. Trying to convince ourselves the only thing wrong with the Cowboys are injuries. And maybe even a better kicker.
Icing the kicker and praying for a miss didn’t work this time, and so the Cowboys lost again. They’ve now dropped three consecutive Thanksgiving games, and it feels like the winless streak has been longer than that. Lots of things to be thankful for, but right now, as Christmas music—most of it somber—becomes an inescapable part of life, the Cowboys aren’t one of them.