This story appears in the Aug. 26–Sept. 2, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The waitress high-steps through a gantlet of carry-on bags, maneuvering her way to the four young men dressed in sweats bearing their college logos. Two kickers, a holder and a long snapper are piled into vinyl seats. Here, in the crumb-lined booth of an airport Chili’s, is where their journey ends.
It’s the first Sunday in May, and the four are waiting for their afternoon flights out of O’Hare. They’re among the many specialists who have left Halas Hall empty-handed, save for a Bears nameplate peeking out of an unzipped backpack atop a pile of duffel bags just outside the restaurant’s entrance. Between sips of beer, Spencer Evans, one of the kickers, mentions that the competition seemed strange from the start. Long snapper Luke Idoni wonders—and, sometimes, still does—if those three days in Lake Forest were all a weird dream.
The state of confusion grew out of the early stages of a kicker search the likes of which none of the participants could have anticipated, marked by unyielding pressure, conspiracy theories, cryptic analytics, unfamiliar Doppler technology, a bizarre air of secrecy and a coaching staff’s obsession with the final, heartbreaking moment of last season.
Over beers and greasy appetizers the quartet reviews the week’s events in hopes of answering one overarching question: What the hell was that?
Moments after the final selection of the 2019 NFL draft was announced last April, Emmit Carpenter’s phone rang. It was Chris Tabor, Chicago’s special teams coordinator, inviting the former University of Minnesota kicker to rookie minicamp for a tryout. Carpenter gladly accepted, and a few hours later, when the mad dash to sign undrafted free agents had died down, he texted a couple of fellow kicking prospects he’d gotten to know during the predraft process. Where are you going? He asked Evans and Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon. The responses from both: Chicago, how about you?
Before the draft began, the Bears already had three kickers on the roster: Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry. Sources around the league typically say four, maybe five kickers is the maximum teams bring in for an open competition. After the text exchange, Carpenter believed he’d be one of six. He was wrong.
When Alex Kjellsten, a kicker-punter out of McNeese State, arrived at Halas Hall, he went directly to the equipment room to get fitted. He didn’t notice anything strange until he walked into the cafeteria: kickers, everywhere. He saw a few he recognized from their YouTube highlight videos. There was the Minnesota State kicker with the long blond hair (Casey Bednarski) and the San Diego State guy (John Baron II).
Holy crap, Kjellsten thought. They are really serious about finding a kicker.
Last January, the Bears’ season came to a screeching halt in a 16–15 wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles, when Cody Parkey’s potential game-winner from 43 yards was tipped at the line before hitting the left upright, then the crossbar. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth coined it the “double-doink,” and the heart-wrenching sound still echoes through greater Chicago.
The Bears released Parkey in March; they will pay more to have him off the roster ($3.5 million) than if he played this year. Thus, they’re looking for a kicker who is good and cheap. But the size of the group they initially brought in suggested less a kicker competition and more the formation of a K-pop band: nine kickers in all, six rookies and three veteran free agents. (And zero NFL games among them.)
“Nine guys is ridiculous!” says Mike Westhoff, a long-time special teams coordinator for the Jets and Saints. “It’s not that I wouldn’t look at nine guys—I would—but I wouldn’t look at nine guys in a pile. That makes it a sham.”
Adam Vinatieri, the Colts’ likely Hall of Fame kicker, is 46 and entering his 24th NFL season. He says the most competitors he ever faced in training camp was four, before his rookie season in New England. He reflects for a moment, then chuckles. “Nine guys? I don’t know... ”
Normally, kickers—like all the specialists—spend camp toiling in seclusion and, often, relative anonymity. It was immediately clear this wouldn’t be the case in Lake Forest. During his first meeting with the 80-something rookies, coach Matt Nagy introduced himself and his staff, then cued up a video. Highlights from Chicago’s wildly successful 2018 season flashed across the screen to a rap beat . . . until the 43-yard miss and the aftermath. The team mascot, Staley, falls to the ground. Parkey hangs his head. All-Pro defensive tackle Akiem Hicks looks around, confused. Nagy’s mouth is open in shock, his face frozen, his eyes darting back and forth as if searching for an alternative ending.
“Look, we’re not hiding from what happened last year,” Nagy told the new players, according to multiple players who were in the room. “We’re going to run up into the face of the problem and fight it.”
Nagy’s message set the tone, but it wasn’t new information. The kickers had all seen the double-doink, and knew the situation they were tiptoeing into. The video, and the process in general, seemed unnecessarily theatrical to some. “The way it is being run,” says Yoon, “there is too much going on in order to make the media happy.”
The next day the kickers began working on their own field (typical kicker stuff). After a couple of hours, the battalion of specialists was marched down a dirt path to join the rest of the team. The kickers were told to stay warm, so they did high knees and stretched and swung their legs on the sideline. Because there were no kicking nets at that field they couldn’t practice with an actual ball—as they would on the sideline during a game—so Carpenter assumed they were just there to run post-practice sprints with the rest of the team.
A half hour later, Nagy blew his whistle, but not to signal the end of practice. He called up Fry for a 43-yard attempt with the full field goal unit in place. The symbolism didn’t require an explanation. To layer additional pressure, the loud music that played throughout the day stopped and no one spoke. The effect was an eerie stillness Nagy dubbed Augusta silence, an idea he’d picked up watching the Masters.
Fry missed. He walked back to the sideline, and Nagy carried on with practice. A few minutes later, he asked all the kickers to line up at the 50-yard line: four on the right hash, four on the left. (Kjellsten, the kicker/punter, punted and held for field goals but did not take any kicks the first day.) They each attempted a series of field goals, again, from 43.
“It’s the whole team, the whole coaching staff, the whole front office, all the media watching,” says Carpenter. “There was a weird feeling about the kick, just because the spot we were kicking from.”
They went in numerical order. Blewitt missed. Bednarski missed. Jones missed. Carpenter missed. Ultimately, the group went a combined 2-for-8 from what Evans referred to as, “the Parkey Spot.”
Idoni, one of three long snappers brought in to handle the workload, remembers the staff acknowledging the unique circumstances, as well as setting some ground rules, at the first special teams meeting. So, there are nine kickers, and this has never done before. There is going to be a lot of media attention. Don’t talk to the press, stay off social media, don’t post your stats anywhere.
But it wasn’t long before the search took on a sort of Rube Goldberg feel—an unnecessarily complicated approach to the kind of position battle that happens across the league every year. It went beyond the Augusta silence kicks and the constant reminders of Parkey.
Jamie Kohl, a well-known independent kicking coach, joined the team as a consultant to help Tabor narrow the search. The two charted field goals and recorded extra data like apex, ball speed, distance traveled and launch angle using TrackMan, a radar system widely used by pro golfers to analyze their swings. (Chicago is the first NFL team to use it to evaluate kickers.) After encountering it at a kicking camp earlier in the spring, Tabor reached out to the company to rent the system and two TrackMan employees to manage the complicated software for the Bears’ three-day camp.
On the morning of the second day of rookie camp, the kickers gathered around the whiteboard outside the locker room, studying a sheet of paper taped next to the special teams depth chart. It was a table of scores and a ranking of how each had performed on day one.
They did some mental math to decode the scoring system. The prevailing hypothesis: One point was awarded for a made field goal, with those from long distances worth more. Some kickers thought another point was added for good ball rotation, but they weren’t entirely sure. Still confused, they pulled out their phones and snapped pictures of the results, hoping to figure it out later from the privacy of their hotel rooms.
“Some of us were getting together like, Hmmm, I thought you made three more kicks than that...” Evans says. “We are all paying attention like hawks to each other. We know who missed, we know how many. Were they taking off points if they thought it was going to get blocked? Did they do that for all of them? It was a very weird deal.”
The leader from day one was Fry, the rare success story from the Alliance of American Football: He’d been a perfect 14-for-14 in field goals with the Orlando Apollos before the league abruptly ceased operations. Each kicker had a comment typed up in capital letters next to his field goal score. In second place, CASEY BEDNARSKI, 15 [points], BALL TRAJECTORY IS A MAJOR CONCERN.
The comments were highly specific, often referencing data points recorded by the TrackMan radar panel set up on a tripod behind the goal posts. JOHN BARON, 13 [points], IMPROVE FG AND MPH OFF THE FOOT.
“Why does [mph] even matter?” asks one kicker, who requested anonymity for fear of hurting his chances to latch on with another team. “If it’s going in, it’s going in. I think they are overanalyzing it. Find a kicker, bring him in. If he does well, keep him going. If he cracks, then let him go.”
When asked during training camp what the range of velocity is for a good kicker, Tabor told reporters, “Oh, it varies by kicker.”
Outside of using the data to establish coaching points with each kicker, Chicago did not share the TrackMan measurements with any of the competitors. Increasing the miles per hour or the rotational speed of a kick is an obscure request already; without data to gauge progress, it proved even more difficult.
The public scoring reminded many of the participants of Kohl’s Kicking Camps. Kohl kicked at Iowa State from 1996-98 and appeared in three preseason games with the Seahawks before he turned to molding kickers. His national rankings, which include only those who have attended one of his clinics or camps, have become almost a prerequisite tool for any kid seeking a college scholarship. Because most NCAA coaches don’t know how to evaluate kickers, they lean on Kohl's rankings for recruiting. Kohl will remain on Chicago’s staff throughout the season.
Several kickers at rookie camp either had never worked with him or had only done so sparingly. They expressed concern that Kohl’s evaluation process was biased because of his prior relationships.
“All of Jamie’s guys, they could have shanked the kick, and it was like, Oh, you have really good rotation, your foot is wrapping around the ball,” says one kicker who was cut after rookie camp. "I don’t think this situation will be solved or will be what the team needs to be until Jamie Kohl is gone. The way he very much tries to control a room, tries to be the alpha.” (Kohl originally agreed to an interview for this story, but hours later said, after discussing the request with the Bears, he would defer to Nagy and Tabor for all comments regarding the kicker search. During a general press availability at veteran minicamp, Nagy admitted, in regards to kicking, “I just know you either make it, or you miss it. That’s what I work off of.” The Bears declined multiple interview requests for Nagy and Tabor. They responded only partially to an emailed list of questions and did not address criticisms of Kohl and the process of the competition.)
Nagy has a stable of pithy mottos he trots out to his team: Be you. We’re chasing great. It’s a we thing, not a me thing. He spent the spring and early summer trotting out a new one: Remember the hurt.
Evaluating kickers has always presented a challenge for NFL front offices. The psychological makeup necessary for the job is difficult to assess, particularly for those who haven’t been tested in real games with real consequences. Tabor frequently references those intangibles as what’s “underneath the hood.”
But at what point does owning up to a mistake from the past morph into a counterproductive obsession?
“If I were Matt Nagy, I wouldn’t keep harping on that kick,” says former kicker Jay Feely, who was once spoofed by SNL after missing three field goals in a 2005 NFL game. He went on to be a reliable kicker for another eight seasons after that. “You wouldn't do this with any other position. Receivers drop passes. Quarterbacks throw interceptions. You wouldn't sign a quarterback and have him throw [the same pass at the same yardage repeatedly in practice] because the last guy threw an interception.
“Putting the kickers at that number piles expectations onto these guys. You’re creating a negative situation. Just move on.”
Kickers are complicated creatures. Teams want to test them in pressure situations in practice to know how they will respond in games, but it’s a thin line between that and setting them up for failure. “It’s not efficient for the team to continuously beat that one dead horse the whole time,” says Yoon. “You have to build a system of confidence for your kicker. I don’t think that’s how the Bears are running it.”
One kicker who also requested anonymity summed it up this way: “All the vibes they gave us during the specialists meetings just did not seem positive whatsoever. It didn’t seem like anyone did well. The vibe and the energy was off.”
There is also a scapegoating aspect at work. Specifically, before its ill-fated path to the left upright, Parkey’s kick was tipped by defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, part of an Eagles surge that overwhelmed the Bears. More broadly, it was another rough game for Chicago’s offense in a season of up-and-down performances. Even though the offensive line got the better of Philadelphia’s pass rush, exposing an inexperienced secondary, second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky delivered a disastrous performance in the first half—one that was overshadowed by a heroic throw to set up Parkey’s attempt. But for Chicago, the game never should have come down to a last-second, do-or-die kick.
After practice wrapped on Sunday afternoon, none of the tryout kickers were asked to meet with the front office staff to sign a contract before they left. Baron and Jones were cut. The group was told that three would survive, but just two kickers made it out of elimination: Fry and Blewitt.
Tabor made a call to the Saints to recommend Kjellsten, a Louisiana native, for their rookie minicamp. When Kjellsten arrived in New Orleans the following weekend, he was pleasantly surprised to see he was one of only four kickers. It was back to anonymity. “That Chicago experience really helped me with pretty much anything else I do kicking related,” he says. “It was so weird, I felt no nerves. No nerves at all.”
Two young boys, maybe around nine years old, sit on the grass just behind the right corner of the end zone, underneath a taut yellow rope that separates the 8,000 or so training camp fans from the practice field. They clap as fan favorites Khalil Mack and Tarik Cohen take their spots for drills. But the two players that interest them the most aren’t in sight.
“Hey, do you want to go watch the kickers?” one says to the other. With that, they scurry off to one of the back fields.
“I have never seen that in my 15 years here, I swear to God,” says Aaron Parpart, 29, another fan who overheard the boys’ conversation.
But Parpart gets it. He was sitting in the north end zone at Soldier Field, six rows up, dead center behind the uprights for the double-doink. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says (before talking about it—it’s all anyone talks about at Bears camp this year). “Never seen something so slow in my life go boing, boing. I sat there and said, O.K., I’m done.”
While many assume Parkey’s appearance on the Today show one week later sealed his fate, Chicago’s front office knew immediately after the double-doink that they would have to cut him. (What if he beat out competition this summer, then missed another big kick in January?) But several sources active in the kicking community say Parkey is clearly better than anyone the Bears brought in this offseason. Parkey is living with his wife, Colleen, in Jupiter, Fla., playing golf and staying in shape. He did not respond to calls or texts, and through his agent, Glenn Schwartzman, declined an interview request. Schwartzman also declined to comment.
The day after rookie minicamp, Chicago sent a conditional 2021 seventh-round draft pick to the Raiders for Eddy Pineiro, who played in one preseason game as a rookie last season before spending 2018 on injured reserve. That made three—all disciples of Kohl. Pineiro worked with multiple mentors, including Kohl, in the leadup to the 2018 draft. Blewitt, a free agent, has also trained with other coaches but he piqued the Bears' interest after he won the field goal competition at Kohl’s Kicking Pro Combine in February. Fry, also a free agent, trained with Kohl in high school and during the leadup to the 2017 draft. Blewitt didn’t make it out of veteran minicamp. He was cut the day after all three kickers missed a 42-yard try under Augusta silence, a disastrous practice that threw the Bears’ fanbase into panic.
Nagy continued to show the double-doink during team meetings in OTAs and veteran mini camp. Bears linebacker Aaron Lynch says seeing it again and again has given him a new appreciation for kickers. “That’s why everybody gasps every time we get a kick [in camp],” he says. “That’s why we support our kickers every day. Now when they make a kick, it’s like, Damn! Thank you!”
When asked for their own evaluations of the kickers, Bears teammates prove they know just as little about the nuances of the position as Nagy. “I’m not gonna say which one, but one of them has a little more swag to him,” says Tarik Cohen.
At training camp, Augusta silence is gone due to the fans in attendance, but there’s been a new experiment. Fry and Pineiro started camp by alternating days. If the kicker performs well during a practice, he earns “dealer’s choice"—the opportunity to name the distance for his final attempt of the day. On Fry’s day, he chose 60 yards, and made it. On Pineiro’s, he lined up from 63—and made it. With that, the crowd broke into chants of “Ed-DEE! Ed-DEE!”
With three seconds left in the first half of the preseason opener, the Bears found themselves at Carolina’s 25-yard line. Fry and the field goal unit trotted out, setting up facing the north end zone goalposts, 43 yards away.
The fans cheered when they heard the distance announced. The kick was from the left hash instead of the right, which was the only difference. (Well, that and the stakes of the game.) “You could feel it, you could sense it, from all the fans,” Nagy said after the game. “My math is really good right now. I can figure out real quick how far a field goal kick is from the spot of the ball, so I realized it was 43.”
Right on cue, Panthers coach Ron Rivera called a timeout, smiling from the sideline as he did. He revealed after the game that he iced Fry solely as a favor to Chicago. Fry responded by nailing his attempt, sending the ball through the middle of the uprights. He said he tried to treat it like any other kick, but added, “Obviously that number has been ingrained into my memory.”
The good times didn’t last for Fry. After pulling a 47-yard attempt against the Giants in the second preseason game, he was waived. The Bears surely like how Pineiro’s powerful leg projects in an NFC North winter—December will include two games at Soldier Field and one in Green Bay. Snow would be new for the Miami native and University of Florida product, but he is the last man standing. Well, he’s the last man standing for now. After the preseason opener, Chicago, despite little 2020 draft capital to work with, reportedly tried to acquire Baltimore kicker-punter Kaare Vedvik for a conditional fifth-round pick. (He was dealt to the Vikings for a non-conditional fifth instead.)
There’s likely to be a pressure kick during the Bears’ 2019 season, whether it’s Pineiro or a kicker to be determined attempting it. As for the process that brings them to that kicker—the process those four specialists were trying to make sense of in an airport Chili’s—think of it this way: Two kickers, a holder and a long snapper walked into a bar. If Chicago lines up for a pressure kick in January, we’ll find out whether that’s the setup for another bad joke.
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