ATLANTA — Jason Elam figured he was down to his last miss.
He was right.
The Atlanta Falcons released the 17-year veteran Tuesday, having finally run out of patience with a kicker who had been one of the NFL’s most accurate but struggled through a mystifying slump this season.
Elam was just 8 of 15 on field goal attempts from at least 30 yards, a success rate that was simply unacceptable — especially for a team contending in the NFC playoff race.
“To be honest with you, when I walked off the field after the last three games, I thought that was it,” Elam told The Associated Press when reached on his cell phone. “I’ve always been able to kick myself out of these things, but it just wasn’t happening for me. It was a bad November.”
It also was an unceremonious ending for a 39-year-old kicker who is tied for the longest field goal in NFL history (63 yards), made more than 81 percent of his career attempts, and earned three Pro Bowl appearances during a 15-season tenure with the Denver Broncos, helping them win back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1990s.
Elam signed with the Falcons last year, returning to the area where he grew up, and played a big role in Atlanta’s surprising run to the playoffs. He made 29 of 31 field goals and all 42 of his extra-point attempts.
But something went wrong this season, and it was apparent right from the start. Elam struggled in the preseason, missed an extra point in the regular-season opener and botched crucial kicks in losses to Carolina and the New York Giants.
“This is not my dream ending, but I feel like it was a pretty good dream career,” he said. “I never anticipated it lasting this long. I wish it was different circumstances that I was going out. But I gave them everything I’ve got. I can look myself in the mirror and feel good.”
The Falcons (6-5) insisted that one miss didn’t cost Elam his job. But the final straw came Sunday, when he was wide left on a 43-yarder with 61/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter that might have led to another Atlanta loss.
The Falcons rallied, throwing a fourth-down touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining to pull out a 20-17 victory over the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they couldn’t afford to cut it so close again, not with vital games coming up against Philadelphia and unbeaten New Orleans.
“He hit some, but unfortunately he missed some others,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the AP. “We felt like we needed to make a move.”
Atlanta signed Matt Bryant, who has kicked with four NFL teams, most recently spending four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had been playing with Florida of the fledgling United Football League and was brought in for a tryout Tuesday, four days after his team lost in the inaugural UFL championship game.
“Matt came in and kicked very well at our indoor facility,” Dimitroff said. “He stroked it well, he had good pop and he showed some accuracy.”
Bryant has the third-longest field goal in NFL history, a 62-yarder in 2006, and he’s also endured personal tragedy: his 3-month-old son Matthew Tryson, died unexpectedly in 2008. One day after the funeral, Bryant returned to kicked three goals in Tampa Bay’s victory over the Green Bay Packers.
“You know he’s strong-willed, given what he’s gone through in his background,” Dimitroff said.
Elam wasn’t the only member of the field-goal unit to lose his job. Long snapper Bryan Pittman also was cut, replaced by Joe Zelenka.
While Elam said he’ll take a few days to decide on whether he wants to pursue a job with another team, he sure sounded as though he’s ready to call it a career.
“I just want to be remembered as a consistent kicker,” he said. “That’s what I prided myself on. It wasn’t the 63-yarder. I didn’t want to be known just for hitting the longest field goal.”