After career-worst season, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker finding his groove at perfect time

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Harrison Butker has had quite the education on the road to Super Bowl 57.

The Kansas City Chiefs kicker, who nailed the 45-yard game-winning kick with three seconds left in the AFC title game, has surely regained the rhythm thrown so out of whack after he suffered a sprained ankle in Week 1. He’s been perfect in the playoffs, including 5-for-5 on field goals. But it wasn’t too long ago when Butker was cast as a major postseason question mark after his worst regular season was stained by a career-high six missed field goals.

“It’s a learning process, right?” Butker told USA TODAY Sports in a near-empty locker room after the victory against the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. “Handle adversity. Ankle went out. Missed four games. Came back, was struggling. I think anytime you have an injury, especially as a kicker, it’s so detail-oriented and it affects you. You feel different.

“But I feel like I’ve handled it a lot better these last couple of weeks. The ankle feels better. The ball’s just flying really straight now, the past couple of weeks. So, I’m just pushing forward. We’ve got one more game for that Super Bowl (crown).”

Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker celebrates after making the game-winning field goal against the Bengals.
Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker celebrates after making the game-winning field goal against the Bengals.

It’s a striking coincidence that the matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 12 will be staged at the same venue, State Farm Stadium, where Butker’s challenging season began. He was hurt on his first kickoff of the season when his plant foot slipped, and he rolled his left ankle. He gutted it out and finished that game against the Arizona Cardinals, thanks to a heavy tape job, and even converted on a 54-yard field goal just before halftime.

Yet it would be many weeks before Butker felt like – and kicked like – himself again.

“Of course, when you have an injury, you’re not going to move the same until it’s fully healed,” Butker said. “I just had to adapt.”

A sixth-year pro out of Georgia Tech, Butker knows the flip side of the roll he is currently riding on to the desert. Kickers can be virtually invisible for entire games, then suddenly carry the weight of the world (or at least their team) on their shoulders when called on to make the pressure kicks.

Probably like the entire kicking fraternity, he felt empathy for Brett Maher when the Dallas Cowboys kicker missed his first four PAT kicks – a first in the NFL’s 103-year history – during the first-round playoff game at Tampa. Maher quickly became the target for relentless scorn and ridicule. Six days later at San Francisco, his first PAT kick was blocked before he connected on two field goal attempts.

“It’s tough to see,” Butker said. “He’s a great kicker. I’ve been there, where the ball’s just not flying straight. It’s tough when everybody in the country, maybe the world, is talking about your struggles when you want to forget all of that and just focus on yourself and what you can control. It’s tough to see that as a fellow kicker, but I’m glad he bounced back and made something like a 40-yard field goal.”

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Butker returned from his injury layoff and set a Chiefs record with a 62-yard field goal against Buffalo in Week 6 that was the longest in the NFL this season (topping the record that his replacement, Matthew Wright, had set during his absence), but it was hardly a sign that he had completely recovered.

Among his missed field goals were a 55-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter of a three-point loss at Cincinnati in Week 13 and a 51-yard try at the end of the fourth quarter at Houston in Week 15 that left the Chiefs needing to win in overtime.

Along the way, Butker, with one of the strongest legs in the league, has tinkered with his techniques – particularly on the longer field goal kicks – in seeking to find the sweet spot for striking the ball for maximum power and better trajectory.

“I feel like I’ve adapted to this new kind of technique,” he said, “and the ball’s flying straight now.”

It’s a good time to be hot. During the divisional playoff victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Butker connected on a pair of 50-yard field goals. Last weekend, he hit three field goals – including the game-winner set up by Patrick Mahomes’ 5-yard scramble and the late hit out of bounds by Bengals linebacker Joseph Ossai that drew a 15-yard penalty.

With calm conditions, Butker has a range of perhaps 63 yards for field goals. On Sunday, with the wind swirling at Arrowhead Stadium and a wind-chill factor of 10 degrees, he thought his range was around 53 yards.

“If we don’t get that penalty, I don’t know,” he said. “You know, cold games, the balls get really deflated. They just don’t fly as much.”

Could he have made it from 60?

“I don’t think that’s getting there,” he said.

As it turned out, Butker had enough distance to ensure that the Chiefs would go one step further at what he might now consider the perfect venue.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chiefs' Harrison Butker perfect in NFL playoffs entering Super Bowl 57