The Saints appeared serious about giving 24-year-old kicker Derek Dimke a chance to separate himself in the race with incumbent kicker Shayne Graham, 36, in their 22-13 defeat against the Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday night.
New Orleans let Dimke take three kickoffs, an extra point and a pair of field goals it had in the first half of the fourth and final exhibition game of 2014. Graham was going to handle those duties in the second half; but, as it turned out, the Saints didn’t kick in any capacity in the third or fourth quarters.
Graham converted the extra point and field goals while auditioning for a crucial job in a league where games frequently come down to last-minute field goals — yet it somehow didn’t entirely inspire the confidence one would hope to have in a kicker in consideration to start Week 1.
Blame the field goal Dimke attempted from Baltimore’s 36 with five seconds to go in the first half. It was the perfect chance for him to prove his youthful potential and strong leg outweighed the known quantity provided by Graham, whose 85.5 percent accuracy rate since the 2001 regular season is the seventh-highest all time and fifth among active players.
But Dimke pushed the 54-yarder wide right. It was admittedly long; however, it was in ideal indoor conditions and at home. The good news for him is, he was bailed out of the miscue when he was illegally run into by Ravens cornerback Tramain Jacobs, laying out to stuff the kick. Officials flagged Jacobs, moved the ball 5 yards closer, and Dimke was true on the mulligan, improving his mark on the night to 2-for-2 (he was previously good from 23) and on the preseason to 4-for-4.
It was also his second kick this preseason of more than 40 yards — he hit a 45-yarder in a win at Indianapolis on Saturday, while Graham’s four makes from four tries had all been from between 24 and 39 yards, with a miss from 33 yards on an experimental extra point mixed in.
“You don’t ever want to miss a kick; but, fortunately, I got hit, got another shot at it, and that’s the one that goes on the scoreboard and in the stat book,” Dimke said afterward.
Nonetheless, it was far from convincing that the missed extra point should serve as the sole tie-breaker in the competition. Dimke had numerous chances to seize the kicking job at practices ever since training camp opened in West Virginia on July 24 before transitioning to the Saints’ headquarters in Metairie.
Graham missed kicks in numerous drills, sometimes while alternating reps with Dimke. On some of those occasions, Dimke made his tries and seemed to edge out ahead.
But then Dimke would falter. He’d miss tries, Graham would rebound and bury his and each was back on equal footing.
The final training camp practice Tuesday perfectly illustrated this. After Graham missed a kick early in the workout, the Saints concluded things by having him and Dimke boot four field goals.
Graham split his first two, and Dimke made each by a considerable margin. But then, Graham made his final two — and Dimke missed each.
Complicating matters for Dimke was that the last try for each kicker simulated a play in which their team had to rush on with the clocking running and under 10 seconds left in regulation. That relatively realistic scenario was his worst in-practice miss — and it was perhaps Graham’s finest connection.
All of which may have left things at a stalemate when time expired on Thursday’s preseason finale. And assuming New Orleans keeps one of the two kickers on the roster as of Thursday, it may be best for the Saints if the draw goes to Graham.
Graham has his flaws. On field goals in the playoffs, he’s a lackluster 13-of-17 (76.5 percent) for his career.
But he was also 4-for-4 in the Saints’ storybook 26-24 wildcard win in January in frigid Philadelphia, the franchise’s first road playoff victory; and he hit the last-second winner that night.
A 2014 Saints team that’s built to make the postseason would know exactly what it had in Graham if that expected playoff run materializes. The same is not true of Dimke, who’s NFL experience is limited to making 12 of 13 field goals in preseasons from 2012-14 spent with Detroit, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Maybe Dimke is the second coming of the 2009 version of Garrett Hartley, who in his first playoffs with the Saints went 5-for-5 to help New Orleans win its lone Super Bowl title. And it’d be no surprise if coach Sean Payton — the only man to dial an onside kick before the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl — has no hesitation shouldering the risk of employing the unproven Dimke.
But it may be that Dimke is not the second coming of Hartley circa ’09. And it’d be no surprise if Payton’s staff opted for the safe choice in Graham if it stayed in house.
“I’m confident in myself — I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I feel like I don’t lack any strength being a little bit older,” said Graham, who lamented not being able to “make plays happen out of thin air” in the second half Thursday. “I work hard, and I do everything I can to help this team out — that’s really all the things I can control.”