MIAMI — Ndamukong Suh, the NFL’s best three-time All-Pro defensive tackle doubling as an emergency placekicker, says the stakes were high the last time he tried a field goal.
Overcome by the pressure of bragging rights, he misfired. In practice. On purpose.
“I had three opportunities, and I was two of three,” Suh says. “The third one was kind of missed intentionally. I didn’t want the offense to win, because in my heart I’m on the defensive side of the ball.”
Such are the trials of the emergency kicker, an overlooked job that invites snickers — until a team’s regular kicker gets hurt during a game. Then someone like Suh might be called upon to make an extra point or field goal, perhaps for the first time in his career, with the outcome on the line.
The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Suh is the league’s biggest backup, but almost all teams have one. They’re often reluctant to use him, though.
When Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott was sidelined by a head injury in Week 11, coach Doug Pederson decided against turning to emergency kicker Kamu Grugier-Hill, a reserve linebacker. Instead the Eagles threw for three 2-point conversions in a 37-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Grugier-Hill did well on kickoffs, though.
Cowboys safety Jeff Heath has been this season’s most successful substitute kicker. He became the first non-kicker or non-punter since 1980 to make more than one PAT in a game when he went 2 for 3 in Week 7 filling in for injured Dan Bailey.
“Not many defensive backs in the NFL get to say that they kicked a field goal in a game,” Heath says.
Others on standby to kick in a pinch include Atlanta Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu and Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
Many teams give the job to their punter, such as the New York Jets’ Lachlan Edwards.
“You’re kind of expected to be that guy,” says Edwards, an Australian. “It’s weird though, because a lot of people just assume that if you’re able to kick a ball, you should be able to do both. They’re totally different things. I never played soccer growing up, ever. I played Australian Football and cricket, and that was it. So my whole life I’ve been kicking a ball that has been in my hands and not on the ground.”
Edwards isn’t the only emergency kicker lacking confidence. Williams is a scratch golfer and excellent table tennis player as well as a 300-pound lineman, but the idea of pinch-kicking doesn’t thrill him.
“No,” he says. “It would not be fun at all, to be honest with you.”
Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden doesn’t think using a substitute to boot would be fun, either.
“We’d go for 2,” he says.
But a team can make a point — or three points — by turning to a backup. New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker kicked a PAT in 2010. Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco kicked the winning extra point in an exhibition game in 2009. Patriots 43-year-old backup quarterback Doug Flutie made the NFL’s first successful drop kick since 1941 for a PAT in 2006.
They’re rarities, though. John Denney, the Dolphins’ long snapper since 2005, says he has never hiked for a backup kicker in a game.
That makes grooming a sub a low priority. Suh, for example, rarely practices kicking during the season.
And a good emergency kicker can be hard to find.
“When I played in high school, it was like, ‘All right, Joey’s the best athlete, let’s have Joey do it,'” Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi says. “Kicking has become so much more specific in the last 15 to 20 years, where now you have these kicking high school camps and combines. You don’t have a lot of position players that do it anymore.”
Which makes Suh an exception, and a big one. Rizzi decided during training camp that the Dolphins’ $114 million tackle was their best option to back up kicker Cody Parkey.
Suh played soccer growing up and was the emergency kicker for the Detroit Lions, where he missed an extra-point attempt as a rookie in 2010.
“He has had the most experience at it,” Rizzi says. “I know you look at him size-wise and say, ‘That’s your backup kicker?’ But he’s really our best option.”
“The visual might be weird, seeing a guy that big back there,” Denney says. “But he has got a good swing.”
Confidence is no issue for Suh. He says kicking’s in his blood because his father and sister played professional soccer, and he’s proud of his success in the clutch.
“I’ve gotten us out of running drills in OTAs and training camp,” he says. “I would count those as crucial kicks. Peer pressure is always the worst.”
As for his 0-for-1 record in games, Suh says he lifted his head on his miss seven years ago, when the kick hit the upright. He’s eager for another chance, but only in a blowout because he doesn’t want Parkey getting hurt.
His range, he claims, is 35 to 45 yards.
“A solid 35,” Suh says. “Without question, I can definitely knock that down. A snowstorm may be a little tough, but I’ll close my eyes and do it. I can get it done.”
And if he misses, it won’t be on purpose.
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon and Sports Writers Dennis Waszak Jr., John Wawrow and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.