By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Unfortunately, Steve Hoffman now works for the Atlanta Falcons.
"I still have the utmost respect for the Jones family and the Cowboys, but I've got my own kickers to worry about these days," Hoffman, an assistant special teams coach, says from his office at Falcons headquarters last week. "Of course I'm aware of the problems they've had with kickers the last couple years. Who isn't? But it's not my place to comment on that situation."
Too bad, because the Cowboys' kicking carousel really started revving when coach Bill Parcells fired Hoffman after the 2004 season. Last year the Cowboys lost three games on missed routine field goals. And last week they swallowed a $2.5 million nip of salary-cap arsenic by releasing Mike Vanderjagt and desperately signing Gramatica.
Sure, Dallas' smallest player made the biggest kick of the Parcells era—a 46-yard field goal last Sunday that beat the Giants in New York and all but clinched the NFC East—but you'd have to be drunker than Danny DeVito to think he's more than a temporary tourniquet on a wound that could prove fatal. (Besides, after watching Gramatica's obsessive-compulsive religious gyrations, aren't we certain he's already exceeded his quota of prayers?)
Gramatica, who produced a dangerously low trajectory, missed a 44-yard field goal and had a kickoff die at the 15, won't provide a long-term answer. So we can expect the age-old question about Hoffman, who earned his reputation as a kicking guru by finding and grooming no-names into never-misses: "Why'd we ever let him go?"
Cowboys and kickers have always co-existed about as harmoniously as Britney Spears and undergarments. In their 45-year history they've had only two Pro Bowl kickers—Efren Herrera in '77 and Rafael Septien in '81. Now comes Parcells, going through specialists like Pamela Anderson through greasy, long-haired rockers.
"It wasn't very good when I got here," Parcells says of his team's kicking after Vanderjagt's release. "It's been a hard time trying to get it right. We need to do something. If there's any insurance out there, I'm in the market."
But on January 17, 2005, Parcells threw out his security blanket.
Hoffman began his 16-year Cowboys career on Jimmy Johnson's inaugural staff. Affording the Cowboys the luxury of quality kicking without spending money in free agency or picks on draft day, Hoffman developed Ken Willis ('90), Lin Elliott ('92), Chris Boniol ('94), Richie Cunningham ('97), Tim Seder ('00) and Billy Cundiff ('03). Under Hoffman's tutelage the group set every Cowboys' single-season kicking record and over a 10-year period made 238 of 292 field goals (81.5 percent), helping Dallas win three Super Bowls.
Arriving with no NFL experience, Boniol had streaks of 25 and 27 consecutive kicks, Cunningham nailed 34 of his first 37 and Cundiff matched Boniol's NFL record with seven field goals in a game. Hoffman didn't create Hall of Famers, but he did find cheap, reliable kickers who didn't cost Dallas games. How's that sound right about now?
"He's one of the main reasons I was able to have a good career," Boniol says. "He helped me kicking, stressing hitting the ball clean more than hard. But also by being a sounding board. He was kind of a buffer that kept me from getting my rear chewed out by the head coach and kept me positive."
Despite his résumé, Hoffman was continually forced to work his magic not for Parcells, but in spite of him.
According to a former Cowboys kicker, Parcells once slapped a paper on Hoffman's desk and ordered, "These are the four punters we're bringing in for tryouts next week." Dismayed at not being consulted yet prepared with candidates, Hoffman asked if he could add to the list.
Groused Parcells, "He'd better be fucking good."
Hoffman's addition: Mat McBriar.
A former Cowboys assistant tells of a similar NSFW war of wills in the spring of '04 when Parcells asked Hoffman's opinion of former Lou Groza Award winner Jonathan Ruffin. Informed that Ruffin's leg strength was inadequate, Parcells stubbornly signed the kicker anyway. Again, Hoffman suggested an alternative, prompting Parcells to snap sarcastically, "How'd I ever win a Super Bowl without you?"
(Super Bowl rings: Hoffman 3, Parcells 2.)
Ruffin was cut early in Dallas' training camp and last summer failed to stick with two Canadian Football League teams. Hoffman's addition—Carlos Martinez—landed on the Cowboys' practice squad last week and could get the next chance when, not if, Gramatica stops being automatica.
Hoffman was an inventor. But to paranoid Parcells, he was also an invader. Forever, fatally, a Jimmy guy. Despite Cundiff going 20 of 26 in '04, Parcells decided not to renew Hoffman's contract under the guise of staff downsizing.
Just like that, the Hoffman Hex grew legs. And feet.
While Hoffman parlayed his foot fetish into a successful consulting career, popular instructional video series and another NFL gig, his departure has forced the Cowboys into using five kickers to convert only 36 of 50 (72 percent) field goals. Thanks to Cundiff, Jose Cortez, Shaun Suisham and Vanderjagt wandering farther right than Dr. James Dobson, Parcells' Cowboys are the league's worst kicking team the last four seasons. It's time for Dallas to kick its bad habit.
"I know this, you won't see any more money going out on a kicker around here," says owner Jerry Jones, referring to Vanderjagt's free-agent signing bonus. "They're just too fragile."
Because Hoffman will be nuzzling graybeard legend Morten Anderson for the Falcons instead of nurturing green-feet prospects in Dallas when the teams meet December 16, the Cowboys' kicking is likewise tenuous. But if Hoffman was still here, so too would the NFL's most accurate kicker.
Remember, of Vanderjagt's four legit misses, three hit the right upright and one missed right by less than a foot. Even in his last game on Thanksgiving he sneaked a chip-shot field goal and an extra point just inside the right post. Though not accurate, his pattern was consistent.
If you believe Hoffman's old theory that kickers lose aim more often than they lose accuracy, perhaps Vanderjagt was merely hitting a perfect ball toward a flawed target.
If Tiger Woods hits 10 consecutive wedges 12 feet right of the pin, guru Hank Haney simply monkeys with his alignment. A Hoffman tweak or two and presto, Vanderjagt could've resumed nailing balls down the fairway, Jones could've gotten more bang for his buck...
And the Cowboys could've actually had a kicking weapon instead of a weakness.