By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I know, the Dallas Cowboys' kicker hasn't attempted an NFL regular-season field goal. And no one, including his own teammates, fully trusts him yet from 44 yards with the game on the line. But after last year's record-setting performance as a kickoff specialist and considering his so-far-so-good preseason, he's at least earned the right to not have his name butchered.
"I hear it all sorts of ways," Buehler tells me in the Cowboys' locker room after last Thursday night's 17-9 exhibition loss to the Oakland Raiders. "The one that gets me is BYOO-lurr. If I have to hear 'BYOO-lurr...BYOO-lurr...BYOO-lurr' one more time...Funny thing is, everyone that does it thinks they're the first one to do it. I'm just like, 'Yeah, good one.'"
Your new kicker's name isn't like Ferris Bueller any more than it's Dirk NoVitzki or Michael IrvinG or NefTALLee Feliz. For the record, it's No-WITZ-skee, ERRvin (the g is not only silent, it's non-existent) and neff-tuh-LEE.
While Buehler has pretty good company in metroplex name nonsense, he also has a solid leg-lock on the kicking position for the Cowboys' 2010 season. In two meaningless August games—the Cowboys play another one Saturday at 8 p.m. against the Chargers in San Diego—he's made six of seven field goals, with the lone miss one he admittedly "overcooked" from 49 yards.
"I like what I see," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who often inexplicably refers to his own kicker as BYOO-lurr, said last week. "Haven't seen any reason so far why he wouldn't be our kicker when we head up to Washington."
By DNA, kickers are a strange lot. They spend the majority of their practice time alone. Their performance warrants only two grades: A or F. And while their number of plays in an NFL game is minimal, their impact can shape the identity of organizations. Right, Scott Norwood?
Kickers are so flaky that on their five Super Bowl teams the Cowboys have had five different kickers (Mike Clark '71, Efren Herrera '77, Lin Elliott '92, Eddie Murray '93 and Chris Boniol '95). In the last 10 years Dallas has rifled through Tim Seder, Jon Hilbert, Billy Cundiff, José Cortéz, Mike Vanderjagt, Martín Gramática, Shaun Suisham, Nick Folk and, what do ya know, Suisham again.
For years the Cowboys leaned on former kicking coach Steve Hoffman to magically pluck a reliable kicker out of nowhere (which he did with Cundiff, Elliott, Boniol, Richie Cunningham, etc.). In '06 they changed formulas and planned for a Super Bowl by signing Vanderjagt as a $2.5 million free agent, only to see him miss five of his first 18 kicks and get cut by Bill Parcells. The Cowboys then got serious about kickers, spending a sixth-round draft choice on Nick Folk. Through two seasons he paid dividends, making 46 of 53 field goals and a Pro Bowl before last year—out of nowhere—losing his mojo and missing 10 of 28 attempts before being replaced by Suisham. He, of course, promptly missed a key early field goal in the playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings and, suddenly, Buehler became the obvious—albeit unorthodox—choice.
"Kickers are just naturally weird," Buehler says. "I can't say that I'm any different."
Raised in Anaheim, California, as the son of a shot-putter, Buehler made 25 of 32 field goals at the University of Southern California. With elite kickers Folk and Mat McBriar on the roster, many were shocked when the Cowboys spent another draft pick (fifth round, 2009) on a rookie with a strong leg, little experience and a unique resume.
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Buehler is built more like a punishing tailback than a puny kicker. At the '09 NFL Scouting Combine he wowed scouts by running a 4.57 40-yard dash and bench-pressing 225 pounds 25 times, recording more repetitions than three of the draft's top seven offensive linemen.
Groomed as a kickoff specialist, Buehler exceeded expectations as a rookie. He led the league and set a franchise record with 29 touchbacks and even made three tackles on kickoffs. In the playoffs, only three of his eight kickoffs were returned. His strong leg was confirmed as a weapon, but could he harness the energy into accuracy?
With Folk and Suisham released from the roster, the Cowboys turned to a familiar face to help Buehler transform from a mad boomer into a meticulous kicker. For now, Boniol is Buehler's personal "consultant." If the pairing can produce success, it might mean a Super Bowl for the Cowboys and a full-time job for Boniol.
"The kid has been blessed with a cannon," Boniol said one afternoon in The Alamodome during training camp. "We're working on his technique. His consistency. With his tools, the sky is the limit."
Says Buehler, "He tells me to trust my leg and to not worry about the last kick or the next kick, only this kick. All I've got to do is go 1-for-1 each time. That's all."
Boniol's main emphasis is convincing Buehler that his approach and leg swing should be the same from 20 yards and 50 yards. Though the kicker has only missed one kick in the preseason, it was a doozy. On the 49-yarder in Canton, Ohio, Buehler accelerated his mechanics and duck-hooked a ball that, in golf, would have him hitting a provisional off the tee.