Kickers are taken for granted.
They are most often alone in their thoughts and alone in practices much of the time. Then they are expected to join the rest of a team and deliver virtually every time they set foot on the field.
While many would say it is a good job to have, avoiding the physicality of big hits, it is a tough job to have, given the obvious pressure and self-imposed pressure which mounts on individuals.
The late Tom Dempsey will never be forgotten in New Orleans Saints lore. Dempsey overcame odds to make in the NFL for 11 years, despite being handicapped. He kicked an NFL record 63-yard field goal on November 8, 1970 to give the Saints a thrilling 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium as time expired in the first-ever game for new head coach J.D. Roberts.
Less than a year later, Dempsey did not have a job in New Orleans, banished by Roberts over a personality clash, a decision that certainly hurt Roberts and hurt the Saints. Dempsey went on to lead the NFL in field goal percentage for Philadelphia in 1971 and kicked nine more years in the league. Roberts was out of a job before the 1973 regular season even began.
Morten Andersen kicked for the Saints from 1982-1994. Simply put, The Great Dane was the best in NFL history, given the era in which he kicked, the longevity of his career and the number of big kicks he made.
Andersen’s body of work earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he joined Jan Stenerud as the only kickers to ever been enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
After the 1994 season, Jim Mora and the New Orleans front office decided they could move on from Andersen after 13 years, thinking that kickers were not very important and could be replaced.
Morten went on to kick another 13 years in the league.
It was bonehead decision, one of many made after Jim Finks became ill and ultimately succumbed to cancer.
Mora was an excellent coach, deservedly in the Saints Hall of Fame and who should be in the team’s Ring of Honor.
Years later, Mora admitted that the decision to jettison Andersen was very poor, one that he truly regretted.
Along with the departures of stalwarts Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills and Stan Brock, all of whom went on to success elsewhere, those personnel decisions proved to be fatal to the Mora regime as the team worsened annually, ultimately climaxing with Mora quitting in the middle of the 1996 season.
It was a sad ending for an excellent coach and, at the time, by far the best regime in franchise history.
What organizations decide to do with kickers can largely determine the fate of head coaches.
Garrett Hartley will never be forgotten by New Orleans Saints fans. He shouldn’t be.
Hartley made 81.2 percent of his field goals and 99.4 percent of his extra points with the Saints .He was perfect in the playoffs, including in the 2009, 2010 and 2013 post-seasons.
Along with Tracy Porter, Hartley made the biggest, most important plays in New Orleans Saints history.
Against Minnesota in the NFC championship game on January 24, 2010, Hartley drilled a 40-yard field goal dead center in overtime to give the Saints a 31-28 victory over the Vikings to put the Saints in the Super Bowl.
Then, in Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 in Miami, Hartley set an NFL record which still stands today, making three field goals in as many attempts in excess of 40 yards, good from 44, 46 and 47 yards, respectively. He made his only extra point attempt as well.
Hartley kicked five seasons for the Saints. Injuries derailed his long-term career, first in 2011 and then a lingering next issue short-circuited what could have been a long career.
After one subpar season in 2013 when he made 73.3 percent of his field goal attempts, Hartley was out.
He got another opportunity with Cleveland in 2014 briefly but that would be his final run in the NFL.
It is a cruel business.
“That was a beautiful chapter in my life,” Hartley said. “I will always cherish the moments we experienced in New Orleans.”
Hartley is still cherishing New Orleans, making his home here. It was great to see him as the Legend of the Game for the final preseason game with Houston. When introduced, Hartley received a very warm applause for the great moments he provided for Saints fans.
While those moments are cherished, the harsh reality of not having a job in the league is real.
Tuesday, the Saints moved on from a proven kicker in Wil Lutz, trading him to a familiar coach in Sean Payton with Denver. The Saints received a seventh-round draft pick in return.
Lutz had a remarkably similar run with the Saints when compared to Hartley, making 84.6 percent of his field goals and 97.6 percent of his extra points for the Saints over six years .
Like Hartley, missed a season with an injury in 2021. Like Hartley, upon returning from injury, there were struggles. Lutz made just 74.2 percent of his field goal attempts in 2022, well below the league average.
That left him a bit vulnerable, especially with a new head coach in Dennis Allen.
Enter Blake Grupe.
The diminutive rookie came up big in training camp and, with the exception of a missed 60-yard field goal attempt, in preseason games.
Lutz did have a field goal blocked in the preseason, though it was nullified by a penalty and he subsequently made the next attempt. A few low kicks in his career here likely gave the current coaching staff some cause for pause.
It was not a matter of Lutz losing the job.
It was more a matter of the Saints getting an offer they could not refuse while believing in a young player whom they feel can get the job done.
Had Lutz performed better in 2022, this scenario may not have unfolded at all.
There is little doubt that the “what have you done lately?” concept is applicable in this scenario. First impressions were great, last impressions, not as much for Lutz.
First impressions from Grupe was excellent.
What comes of that remains to be seen. Whether or not he has success is anyone’s guess.
These are the decisions that NFL executives and coaches are paid handsomely to make. These are the decisions that can make or break the careers of those executives and coaches.
The Saints organization clearly believes that success will follow for Grupe.
There is a good chance that Lutz will go on to experience success in the kicker-friendly air of Denver while Grupe gets to perform in the kicker-friendly, indoor confines of Caesars Superdome.
“It is a business, first and foremost,” Hartley said. “It is a game but it is their livelihood. It’s not like any other position in the game. There is one starter in the specialist position, be it a kicker, punter or snapper. I appreciate everything Wil has brought to the city and team and more importantly, the type of person he is. His natural ability to kick a football speaks for itself. He was not released, he was traded for a draft pick. Joining forces with Sean Payton again will be great for him and his family. Keep in mind most people don’t last beyond three years. What he did in New Orleans was impeccable, including the game-winning kicks. That will not be forgotten with his legacy here.”
Hartley understands the expectations Grupe now steps into.
“Everyone talks about big shoes to fill,” Hartley said. “It is Blake’s job now. He simply needs to step on the field week in and week out and be productive. It is what the Saints expects but it is what he expects. He’s very well versed. He’s highly capable. I love his technique. He is comparable to Will Zalatoris in golf, who is smaller but drives it as far as anyone. Blake has proven his ability in practice and in games. The team behind him is one of the best teams on paper and statistically that the Saints have had in a while. He is going to be successful. There might be a couple of bumps in the road but he is highly motivated and highly talented.”
While there are multiple players at every other spot on the field, that is not the case for kickers, punters and long snappers on NFL rosters. Hartley is happy that both Lutz and Grupe have jobs in an elite fraternity.
“Both are fine kickers and people and both deserve having jobs in the league,” Hartley said. “There are only 32 of those jobs. It is tough. I’m excited about watching both this coming season. There are so many attributes that go into being an NFL kicker. A lot of it is between the ears. It is a difficult job. You have to manage yourself well.”
It is a job that Hartley handled brilliantly on the biggest stage. He will always be one of the true heroes in New Orleans Saints history.
“I’m excited for Blake and hope he gets the opportunity to make big kicks in big games as I did,” Hartley said. “I enjoyed watching Wil from his rookie year. He rebounded from an injury year. That is never easy. He has come through in clutch situations and he will continue to do that. I wish in nothing but the best for him.”
The life of an NFL kicker is fragile. The Saints handled their decision with a ton of care. We cannot wait to see how it will fare.