FLOWERY BRANCH — Jason Elam never misses a chance to watch Tiger Woods.
Not so much for the booming drives, or the long putts he always seems to make. Elam focuses on that look in Woods’ eyes, the steadiness in his hands when he lines up a shot that could win the tournament — or lose it.
“I love his mental game,” Elam said. “I just watch how focused he is, how driven he is, how he just grinds it out for three-and-a-half, four hours. When I’m watching a golf match, there’s a clear difference between him and the others. It’s just that mental focus.”
Elam has put those lessons to good use in his job as an NFL kicker. During 15 years in Denver, he became an iconic figure not so much because he tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal, but because he always seemed to make every big kick at the end of the game.
Now, he’s a full-fledged member of the Atlanta Falcons, having added to his reputation of being the best clutch kicker around when he banged through a 48-yarder on the final play to give his new team an improbable victory a couple of weekend ago. It was the 16th game-winning kick of Elam’s career in the final 2 minutes of regulation or overtime.
“You just try to make your swing, as a kicker, kind of like a golf swing,” Elam said. “You want to make your swing like it is in practice. Trust it. I realize that I’m going to miss from time to time, but I also know I’m going to make a whole lot more than I miss. So, I just swing and hope.”
Over the past two years, Atlanta struggled to settle on a reliable kicker. Punter Michael Koenen appeared ready to handle both jobs in 2006, but that experiment lasted all of two games. Untested Matt Prater won the job in training camp last season, but he lasted only two games before being let go. Both times, the Falcons turned to ancient Morten Andersen to finish out the year.
Clearly tired of the uncertainty, Atlanta moved aggressively to sign the 38-year-old Elam, whose right leg isn’t quite as strong as it was in his youth but still has that knack of making the biggest kicks. He made four game-winners for the Broncos last season, the most in the NFL since 1990.
Six games into his Falcons career, Elam showed why he was such a good investment. The Chicago Bears scored a touchdown with 11 seconds left to take the lead, but Atlanta returned the kickoff near midfield, and Matt Ryan rifled a 26-yard pass to Michael Jenkins, who got out of bounds with one second on the clock.
Elam trotted on and calmly made his 31st field goal in his last 32 attempts, giving the Falcons a 22-20 victory heading into their bye week. Atlanta (4-2) is one of the league’s most surprising teams, establishing itself as a possible playoff contender in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the Michael Vick debacle.
“This was a special one just because it was the first time that it’s really come to me in Atlanta,” said Elam, whose team travels to Philadelphia on Sunday after the time off. “You want your teammates to believe in you.”
Make no mistake, they have full confidence in Elam — even though it actually looked as though he would be the goat in that big win over the Bears. Jerious Norwood ripped off a long kickoff return that put the Falcons in position to put up the clinching points, but Elam hooked a 33-yarder left of the upright with just under 3 minutes left.
Then, standing grimly on the sideline, he watched Chicago drive down the field for what looked to be the winning score.
Fortunately for Elam, he got a second chance. The Falcons were able to joke about his miss.
“I knew the kick was going through,” coach Mike Smith quipped. “I honestly think that Jason Elam missed that first field goal to put himself in that position.”
What if Elam had not gotten a shot at redemption? Well, he would have been mad at himself for a few minutes. Then he would have gotten on with the season. He knows better than anyone that ego-boosting success and the occasional high-profile failure is all part of the position.
“The experience level, having been through that before, it does help,” he said. “You realize that, hey, if you do miss, the sun is going to come up tomorrow and it’s not the end of the world. The ebbs and flows of a veteran aren’t as much as when you’re young, when you just live and die with it. I can remember way back early in my career, if I missed a kick — any kick — I was in the tank the rest of the week.”
This is where Elam walks a narrow line, one that all the great ones learn to balance. He still gets nervous when he goes out to kick, even in practice, but he uses that fear of failure to push himself to even greater heights. On those rare times when he does miss, he quickly gets over any negative feelings that could affect his confidence.
“If you’re any kind of competitor at all, if you have any drive at all, you want to do well,” Elam said. “You don’t want to let your teammates down. You don’t want to let the coaching staff down. You don’t want to let the fans down.”