It felt a lot like watching Rocky II at Clarke Hinkle Field today.
After a lot of jabs early and some heavy punches late, incumbent Dave Rayner emerged as Rocky Balboa. Rayner’s leg strength has always been ahead of his time - he tied a Packers record with a 54-yard field goal at Philadelphia last year and was a kickoff specialist for Indianapolis his first NFL season.
The power was there.
Now his accuracy is catching up.
Not many drills or situations at training camp can simulate drama. But this morning sure did for Rayner and rookie Mason Crosby. The two went back and forth at the following distances - 29, 29, 35, 35, 39, 43, 43,48, 48, 51, 51, equating to 11 kicks each.
Rayner calmly hit every kick and his final 51-yarder easily would have cleared 61. But like Apollo Creed, Crosby wasn’t bad, either, going 9-for-11. He missed from 39 and 48 yards before recovering with three bombs at the end.
There has only been five days of camp and the kicking competition is already heating up. In a similar showdown Tuesday, Crosby was the victor by nailing all five of his kicks, while Rayner (4-for-5) had a 40-yarder blocked. Four days ago, Rayner (6-for-6) edged Crosby (5-for-6) with the rookie missing from wide right from 30 yards.
Today’s bout was two times longer and it belonged to Rayner.
“That’s the best I’ve kicked the ball in all of camp,” Rayner said. “It felt good. We had the day off yesterday so my feet were rested and I was able to kick the ball good.”
Rayner has appeared unfazed by the team drafting Crosby. Teams draft kickers to play them and Crosby’s leg is as strong as advertised. His collegiate success wasn’t a byproduct of Colorado’s Mile High thin air. But Rayner has given Crosby no room for error. Right now, it is his job to lose and he hasn’t looked back.
“I think it’s just one of those things where I’ve gotten better every year I’ve kicked,” said Rayner, who was 26-for-35 last year with 11 touchbacks after attempting only one field goal with the Colts in 2005. “In college, every year I improved. And I plan on doing it here. Last year I came in and it was my first year doing the whole deal. I had a decent season. There were some points that I didn’t kick the ball well. I had a really good off-season. I got stronger mentally and physically. I got older and a little more mature.”
It is the mental aspect of kicking head coach Mike McCarthy is emphasizing. There were no other drills being held during today’s competition, with total focus on Rayner and Crosby. The crowd got into it, NFL referees were beneath the uprights, and both kickers brought the heat.
Sure it’s practice. But the manner in which the kicking battle is being held can make the atmosphere a little nerve-racking, especially with a job on the line.
“They try to make it a little mental and more difficult on you,” Rayner said. “But really it wasn’t that big of a deal. If it was in a game that’s one thing. But practice isn’t too nerve-racking.”
Rayner had to feel a little slighted on NFL Draft weekend.
A former Division I soccer prospect from Oxford (Michigan) High School, Rayner was one of the team’s brightest surprises last season. He scored 109 points, made 75 percent of his kicks, and hit a clutch 44-yard game-winner against Minnesota with 1:34 left, single-handedly bailing out Bubba Franks, who fumbled away a game-clinching touchdown. If anyone’s job was safe, it was Rayner’s.
Then general manager Ted Thompson took the best player available with the 193rd overall pick in the sixth round, instantly creating serious competition at a position that didn’t really need it.
But it could prove to be a genius decision.
Every year, one or two games boil down to kicking. Remember. It was one game that kept the Packers out of the playoffs last year, just like 1999 and 2000. Even if Crosby doesn’t make the 53-man roster, his drafting upgrades the position. Right now the rookie is pushing Rayner every day in practice and vice versa. That effect is completely worth a sixth round pick.
“The competition helps,” Rayner admitted. “Obviously when your job is kind of up for grabs it makes you concentrate a little bit more. But coming in I was confident whether Mason was here or not.
“[Crosby] is a good kicker. You don’t get drafted unless you’re a good kicker. I can’t control what he does or how he kicks. So I’m going in every day focusing on Dave Rayner and how I kick. It worked for me today.”
Still, it’s obvious that Rayner and Crosby are elevating each other’s play. This morning, the two made five kicks in a row from 48 yards and beyond. Competition is fueling this one way or another. One year after complete uncertainty, the Packers will enter 2007 with a solid kicker.
Rayner has the edge now but as he mentioned today, the true testament is the preseason. That is where the team’s all-time leading point scorer, Ryan Longwell, ousted third round pick Brett Conway in 1997.
Rayner realizes this.
“I don’t count exact kicks [in practice] but if I miss one I count that,” Rayner smiled. “Those are easier to remember. But when it comes to the games and preseason, each kick will be a little more important.
“I’ve realized that it’s my job if I want it. I just had to get that in my head.”
Round One ... Balboa.
Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University. He is in Green Bay covering the Packers during training camp for PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.