Falcons vs. Bucs
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, radio: FOX; 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH — Jason Elam has been around long enough to know where things stand.
His spot with the Atlanta Falcons — maybe even his career — could be decided on the very next kick.
"This is results-based business," Elam said Wednesday, standing at his locker and grateful to still have a spot with the team. "There’s nothing else to it."
Elam, one of this generation’s greatest kickers, is mired in a baffling slump. The last two weeks, he’s missed crucial kicks that could have turned losses into wins. Now, with the Falcons (5-5) in a desperate fight to make the playoffs, the team is running out of patience — even with a guy who might have the credentials to be considered for Canton someday.
Four kickers were brought in Tuesday for a tryout the team made no effort to hide. Coach Mike Smith decided to stick with Elam — for now.
"I’m probably down to my last miss," Elam acknowledged in a candid self-assessment. "Another miss and I’m probably done. I understand that."
Elam’s woes came out of nowhere. Last season, his first with the Falcons after 15 mostly brilliant years in Denver, he knocked through 29 of 31 field-goal attempts and all 42 of his extra points, stabilizing a position that had been a sore spot in Atlanta.
But the 39-year-old Elam has struggled mightily this season. He missed an extra point in the opening game, only the third time that’s happened in his long career and a precursor of things to come. He has made only 6 of 12 field goals from at least 30 yards, a totally unacceptable success rate that cost the Falcons dearly in the last two losses to Carolina and the New York Giants.
"I’ve had slumps before," Elam said. "Over 17 years, you have some hiccups at various times. I’ve always been able to kick my way out of it. Hopefully, that’s what will happen this time."
The Falcons have certainly given Elam more leeway that they would another wayward kicker. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler who’s scored at least 100 points in an NFL-record 16 straight seasons. He’s kicked 23 game-winning field goals and shared the league record for longest field goal, making a 63-yarder for the Broncos in 1998.
But Atlanta can’t live in the past, not as it prepares for a crucial three-game stretch of home games that will go a long way toward determining if the team gets back to the playoffs for the second year in a row. The Falcons host woeful Tampa Bay (1-9) Sunday in a game they absolutely must win.
As if sending a message that Elam’s rope is shorter than ever, the Falcons brought in Steve Hauschka, Sam Swank, Shane Andrus and former Georgia standout Brandon Coutu to their practice facility on a day when the players are off. Hauschka, Swank and Andrus have NFL experience. Coutu was drafted by Seattle in 2008, but did not make the team.
None of them were signed. But it’s the first time Elam’s job has ever been so blatantly on the line.
"Jason is our kicker right now," Smith said. "We were doing our due diligence. We had some kickers in to evaluate, we made an evaluation with those kickers, and it was decided that Jason is going to be our kicker."
The coach insisted he’s not given up on Elam.
"I’ve got all the confidence in the world," Smith said. "He’s a guy who’s made a lot of field goals and extra points in his career. He’s had his ups and downs. We all go through those."
Elam’s problems might not be all his own making. The Falcons were forced to switch snappers during the season because of an injury, and there have been times when the timing seemed off.
"He looks like he’s got a little hitch sometimes," tight end Tony Gonzalez observed.
But Elam refuses to put the blame on anyone else involved in the execution of a field goal or extra point. He knows it’s up to him to make the kicks, no matter what the circumstances, and he’ll certainly be the one who takes the fall if things don’t improve.
He’s been looking at film of himself from throughout his career, trying to pick up on any flaws. He’s called up fellow kickers such as Carolina’s John Kasay and former Falcon Todd Peterson, hoping his longtime friends might spot something wrong in his technique.
There are no easy answers. Elam has felt out of sync on some of his misses; other times, he has no idea what went wrong.
"I’m very frustrated," he said. "I don’t want to overanalyze it. At the same time, I’m trying to think of every possible scenario. I realize there’s a problem. I’ve got to fix it."
The Falcons are hopeful that Elam will turn things around.
"He’s been doing it too long for me not to have confidence in him," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "This isn’t his first rodeo."
But it might be his last chance.