Today is an off-day. More or less. The morning practice was scrapped in favor of extra sleep and position meetings. The afternoon session? Changed from the daily grind of battling the heat and each other to more esoteric pursuits--special teams.
It's not that special teams aren't important, because anyone who knows football knows how the outcome of a game can be immediately altered by a solid kickoff return or poor punt or long field goal. No, it's not that special teams are insignificant; it's just that, at least during camp, it's an opportunity for large, sweaty men to skate a little, to live the life the kickers enjoy so much. Some stretching, some instruction, a little running around, some goofing off, and, before you know it, practice is over, and it's time for dinner.
By definition, kickers are professional athletes. By definition.
"Yeah, we haven't done much running yet," admits incumbent placekicker Tim Seder, shielding his eyes from a powerful sun lingering overhead. "But if that ball falls in my hands, I'll be ready. I'll take off with it."
He's joking, of course. Or at least he means it in jest. But with Seder, it's hard to tell, hard to separate fact from fiction, folk hero from reality. You've probably heard his story: went to tiny Division II Ashland University, finishing with a school-record 41 field goals; became physical education teacher and football coach at Lucas High School in Ohio; sent a tape of himself kicking to Dallas Cowboys kicking coach Steve Hoffman, where it sat unwatched for two years; got invited to camp last season after the tape got dusted off; beat out Rian Lindell, Jon Hilbert, Cedric Oglesby, Jaret Greaser, the janitorial staff and two garbage cans to earn a roster spot. And here he is, with a job in the NFL--the personification of unrealized dreams everywhere.
It was, and still is, an interesting ride for Tim Seder. After all, the path he took to professional "stardom" is too absurd for even the most creative fiction writers to try to pass off. He did well last season, finishing sixth in the NFC and 12th in the NFL in scoring among kickers. But, in this league, particularly among kickers, job security is a rumor, the stuff of lore. It is infrequently, if ever, attained. Which only serves to add to his story, considering Seder is the only placekicker in camp. Even teams with good-to-great kickers routinely bring in warm bodies, just so their guys feel the competition, so they remember what's at stake.
"I just felt like, right now, with the roster the way it is, we didn't need to bring anyone else in," says coach Dave Campo, who chose not to bring in a challenger for punter Micah Knorr, either. "Both of our kickers are quality guys. Seder gets better as he goes. Coming off of last year, out of nowhere the way he did, he learned a lot. I think of him like a sophomore this year. He knows what to expect in different situations. We feel good about him."
It may not be a long-term contract, but for a 5-foot-9, 190-pound kicker--really, both of those listings in the media guide should be qualified as estimates, and generous ones at that--it's every bit a warm blanket on a cold night. You take what you can get. And you're thankful for it. Seder says he was always that way--never got too ahead of himself, always enjoyed what he had, even if he was looking for something more substantial. Try as I did to get him to relax, he wouldn't give in. He wouldn't say he belongs or even that he deserves this after so many years of anonymity--only that he has to keep working. (I'll let the phrase "keep working" in talking about a kicker stand as understood irony.)
"There may not be anyone here, but that doesn't mean I'm not being pushed," he says with a serious face. Appropriate, considering he has a serious look: squatty and muscular with a defined jaw and a short, armed-forces-style buzz cut. "I have to keep pushing myself. I feel like I earned that spot last year, not that it was given to me. I feel like I can get better this year. I want to get better."
It goes unsaid here in Wichita Falls that the Cowboys will need him to get better out of necessity. If you haven't heard--and bless your ignorance if you haven't, because the actuality might shock and depress you--the Dallas offense was anemic last year, averaging slightly more than 18 points per game--good for 23rd in the NFL. But that figure is a bit misleading. Much like the SATs, the league spots you 10 points just for participation. Unfortunately for the Pokes, and for you, barring some magnificent act of God, it won't get better this year. That is, it figures to get much worse. You see, Tony Banks is the quarterback now, which is a lot like handing the keys to your banged-up station wagon to the blind kid next door--just to see if he has it in him to really do some damage before you junk it. Last year, before Brian Billick got fed up and yanked Banks from his role as starter, the sixth-year pro "led" the Ravens to five weeks without a touchdown. Again, the NFL spots you points just for playing. (The parting gifts are lovely, too--hookers for everyone!) Making matters worse, Banks' primary receivers, Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway, are each coming off injuries, and his relief out of the backfield, Emmitt Smith, is getting old and used. All of which amounts to this: more kicking, and likely less sleep for Campo.
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All right, where's Seder? Listen, Tim, I'm gonna be honest. Our offense blows. Tony didn't leave us much to work with. What's your range these days? Can you make it from Valley Ranch?
Now, don't think Campo is going soft. He did say that he reserves the right to bring in a kicker once the roster is pared down a bit and things are more settled. Not that Seder is concerned, or that he'd even let you know if he were.
"I really can't worry about that," Seder says, unwavering. Too bad "the Rock" nickname was taken by those sports entertainment geeks. "I can only control myself and my performance."
Right. If I could take the liberty and translate for Tim, who's overdoing the P.C. thing a little too much, what he really means is, "Shee-it, having Tony Banks is like being insured by Lloyds of London."