Saints fans have cracked the joke at kicker Shayne Graham’s expense countless times this season.
“My heart can’t take it,” they say, “when he lines up for a kick” — or something to that effect.
But those fans should be thankful they don’t root for the Detroit Lions (4-2), whom the Saints (2-3) face at noon Sunday at Ford Field. Their hearts might have already given out if they did.
Lions kickers — there have already been three of them this year — have missed 10 of the 15 field goals they’ve attempted. They’ve missed 10 of the 12 kicks they’ve tried from 40 yards or longer.
That shoddiness outright cost the Lions one victory. It also cost two kickers their jobs.
Compare that to Graham’s work since he joined the Saints late in 2013: nine makes on 10 regular-season tries. That’s better than the career regular-season percentage of 85.5 Graham has registered while kicking for nine teams since 2001 — a figure that’s the eighth-best all-time heading into Sunday.
Those are numbers the Lions undoubtedly envy. They also illustrate why the Saints haven’t abandoned Graham at the slightest hint of trouble — even if some in New Orleans have clamored that that’s the way to go.
“Of any positions on the field, (kicker, long snapper and punter) are the positions that (coaches) don’t want to have to be dealing with,” said Thomas Morstead, the Saints punter and special-teams captain. “I think there’s very little known about how to punt, kick and snap among the general coaches that are out there, so when coaches find somebody who is stable in the way they do things and is consistent, I think there’s value in that.”
Morstead wasn’t speaking specifically about the Lions, but all of that is precisely what Detroit failed to do.
The Lions’ first kicker this year — rookie seventh-round pick Nate Freese — nailed all three of the field goals from between 20 and 39 yards that his team sent him out for. But he was off on all four of the kicks he tried from between 40 and 49 yards, and he was cut after three games.
Next up for the Lions was Alex Henery, who had made 86 percent of his kicks in Philadelphia from 2011-13 but was beaten out for the Eagles’ kicking job this preseason by Cody Parkey.
Henery faced a challenge: With a new snapper and holder, he only tried kicks from beyond 40 yards — including three from 50 or longer. It didn’t go well; he made only one of five kicks in a 24-17 win at the New York Jets and a 17-14 home loss to Buffalo, missing three kicks in the Bills game. Not surprisingly, he was out of a job shortly thereafter.
In to replace him was veteran Matt Prater, who had made 82.9 percent of his kicks from 2007-13 in Denver but was released after completing a four-game suspension related to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. (He drank alcohol after he was prohibited from consuming it following drunken-driving arrests in 2008 and 2011.)
Prater promptly went 1-for-3 on field goals in his debut, a 17-3 win at Minnesota that could’ve been a 20-point triumph. Like Henery, all of his kicks were from 40 or more yards, and his make was from beyond 50. But it’s safe to say he enters Sunday’s game against the Saints firmly on the hot seat.
Naturally, Henery and Prater have been Saints message-board favorites this season as candidates to fly into New Orleans and oust Graham. It would be hard to blame anyone who has since thought better of that.
Aside from operating at a 90 percent accuracy rate through seven regular-season games with the Saints, Graham made 4 of 4 tries in the Saints’ 26-24 NFC wildcard-round win at Philadelphia in January, the only road playoff victory in the 46-year-old franchise’s history.
Sure, he had an extra point deflected in a 20-9 win at home against Minnesota. He missed from 41 yards in a 38-17 loss at Dallas, causing one of The Advocate’s Saints writers to speculate about his job security. And he had a pair of misses in the Saints’ season-ending loss at Seattle in the divisional playoffs last year.
But the extra point was inconsequential, the miss in Dallas did little to sway the outcome and the conditions in Seattle were windy and rainy enough to challenge any kicker. And, in a 37-31 overtime win at home against Tampa Bay on Oct. 5, he bounced back from his miscue in Dallas to go 3-for-3, including a make from 44 yards that tied the score at 31 late in the fourth quarter.
“When you miss one, your mindset has to be, ‘I know I can make any kick I line up for,’ ” Graham said this week about his big moment against the Buccaneers. “You still project that positive confidence to yourself when you line up for a kick; so when you line up, you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to make this.’ You don’t line up thinking, ‘God, I hope I don’t miss.’ ”
At least this year, that has been much more difficult for the Lions’ revolving cast at kicker to replicate. And, if Sunday’s game comes down to a late kick for either side, the emotional roller coaster would be much more intense for Lions fans than for Who Dats.