When Randy Bullock missed his third kick Sunday -- the fourth in the first two games of his Texans' career -- my initial, emotion-fueled instinct was simple.
The Texans (2-0), while not perfect, are legitimate Super Bowl contenders and probably No. 2 in the AFC pecking order behind only Denver. Though wins over the Chargers and Titans proved more difficult than envisioned, the performances of those two teams in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, respectively, shows they're very competent opponents. This year's Texans have too much going for them to squander games with an unproven rookie kicker, like they almost did Sunday.
But stepping away from the emotion of the moment, the thorny issue of actually resolving that problem becomes apparent:
Who would the Texans replace Bullock with?
Forget any young alternatives. Houston wouldn't ditch Bullock for another untested rookie. If they go another route, it would be for a proven veteran -- and the most appropriate unemployed comparison could be Shayne Graham, the 2012 Texans kicker.
Adam Wexler offered good insight into a hypothetical Bullock vs. Graham evaluation:
Last yr, Graham made just 1 of 1st 5 kicks of 46yds or longer. Bullock: 0-4 on same so far. Graham: 5-12 from 46+ overall last yr. #Texans
— Adam Wexler (@awexler) September 16, 2013
Graham was 26-26 on FGs #Texans
— Adam Wexler (@awexler) September 16, 2013
While Graham had his issues, he was never a disaster because he made the kicks he was supposed to make (inside 45 yards). The sample size is extremely limited for Bullock, but thus far, he's 1-for-1 -- with that kick being a pressure-packed game winner in San Diego.
Also, Graham shook off a slow start on 46+ yard kicks, making four of his last seven in the regular season and converting a huge 55-yard bomb in the playoff game at New England.
As a result, there is precedent in Houston for turning around a slow start, which offers hope for Bullock. There's also the issue of kickoffs, on which Bullock looks like a clear upgrade on Graham, Neil Rackers and any other Texan kicker ever. Want evidence?
Bullock also has 8 TB on 9 KOs (4-4 today). After 9 games last year, Graham still only had 11 TBs (on 52 KOs). #Texans
— Adam Wexler (@awexler) September 16, 2013
In addition, despite the popular belief that a contender shouldn't trust a young kicker, recent evidence shows that it can very much pay off. Just look to Houston's Week 3 opponent, the Baltimore Ravens. The 2011 Ravens failed to reach the Super Bowl when veteran Billy Cundiff shanked a chip-shot field goal in Foxboro that would've sent the AFC Championship to overtime. The 2012 Ravens won the Super Bowl amid a series of huge kicks from rookie (and ex-Longhorn) Justin Tucker, including a 47-yard kick in frigid weather to take down the Broncos in Denver during the playoffs.
So can Bullock turn things around? Absolutely. But will he? That's more concerning, especially given anecdotal offseason results. Steph Stradley, a fixture at most club practices and events around Reliant Park, said this in her June review of Texans OTAs:
The last two days of OTAs, during the situational football focus that was the last week of camp, Bullock did kicks in front of team and assembled media. Between 40-49 is supposed to be nearly automatic for a modern NFL kicker. Bullock was not automatic.
Yes, it is early. But it is never too early to be concerned that your inexperienced kicker isn't making kicks he is supposed to make for a team that has realistically high expectations.
It's certainly not too early for concerns now. The interesting thing about Bullock, a fifth-round draft choice in 2012, is that accuracy has rarely been a problem for him. In his 2011 senior season at Texas A&M, he was a lights-out 88 percent on field goals, including 12-of-14 (86 percent) from the range of 40-to-49 yards.
But Bullock's season (and career) long was just 52 yards, and not all of his kickoffs went through the end zone. That trend continued into his early career with the Texans. Before he was shelved for all of 2012 with a groin injury, the main focus on his training camp and early preseason work was his inability to get depth on kickoffs and a tendency to leave long field goals short. He was fairly accurate, but distance was a concern.
Suddenly, in 2013, everything appears reversed. His leg booms on kickoffs, sailing most through the end zone. Bullock also connected on a 55-yarder against New Orleans in the preseason on a kick that looked good from 60. It stands to wonder if Bullock's accuracy was somehow compromised in whatever offseason work he did to increase his strength.
So going forward, what can and should the Texans do?
For starters, they shouldn't show their hand. It's not worth analyzing specific quotes all that closely. The kicker of a football team is a unique position in how dependent it can be on mental confidence. At least 30 media members went straight for Bullock's locker when the room opened after Sunday's game. To Randy's credit, he took responsibility for his mistakes -- but it's certainly not the attention he envisioned when his professional career officially launched a week ago. The pressure is mounting.
As they did Sunday, Gary Kubiak and everyone else in the Texans locker room will relentlessly reiterate their support of Bullock as long as he's on the team. That's not necessarily because they're 100 percent believers -- it's just the public position they have to take to give Bullock the best chance to succeed. He's in a precarious position, and they know it.
Hope that closer field goals can build confidence. It's easy to forget that all of Bullock's misses have been from 46 yards or further. Does that excuse them? Absolutely not. A professional kicker shouldn't miss four straight attempts from 46-to-51 yards, all indoors or in perfect weather. But confidence can have a snowball effect with youth.
In basketball, a popular remedy for a struggling shooter is to get to the free-throw line. That gives the player more time to concentrate on form and ultimately build confidence by watching easier shots go through the basket. The same could hold true with Bullock and the Texans. At this point, he could benefit from lower-pressure kicks (ideally less than 40 yards, which he's had none of this year) that allow him to confidently visualize his ball going through the uprights.
The Texans could also consider going for more 4th downs. Twice on Sunday, the Texans had 4th-and-2 scenarios between the Tennessee 35 and 30. Both times, they opted for a field goal attempt that ultimately missed.
Even with a great kicker, an argument can be made that it makes more sense to go for the 1st down at that spot on the field rather than kick. Just look at the risk/reward ratio. If you kick, the reward is 3 points for a make, and the risk is the other team taking over at the 40 after a miss (and no points). For even the best kickers, attempts of that length will usually miss about 30 percent of the time. With Bullock right now, that percentage feels much higher.
If you go for it? The reward is 7 points, should the drive end in a touchdown. Worst case, you take more time off the clock and give yourself a much more reasonable field goal attempt. The risk is failing on 4th down and giving the other team the ball at the 32.
If the risk in the first scenario is even remotely approaching the risk in the second -- and with Bullock at the moment, it appears to be -- the second route could be the way to go. The reward is clearly better, and it buys Bullock more time to sort through his issues.
Yes, Bullock has some time, but he'll have a shorter leash than Kris Brown. Remember 2009? Brown's disastrous final season in Houston -- including several missed kicks in the closing seconds -- proved critical when the Texans missed out on the playoffs by one game. Fans and media clamored for the Texans to cut ties during the season, but they didn't move on from Brown until 2010.
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That scenario is unlikely to reoccur with Bullock in 2013. Many forget that Brown was a mostly very good kicker for his first seven seasons in Houston. In fact, 2008 was his best year of all. So after seven good years, it was tough for the Texans to discard Brown entirely after a small handful of struggles. Bullock, on the other hand, has no track record. He's completely unproven at the NFL level. If his woes continue, the logic to keep believing in him -- especially with veteran replacements like Graham readily available -- just isn't the same as it was for Brown.
But no matter what happens, change is unlikely before October 21. That's the day after the Kansas City game (No. 7 on the 16-game slate) and when the Texans enter their bye week.
It's incredibly unlikely that the Texans will wake up that morning at 2-5 and in serious danger of missing the postseason (and if they somehow do, their issues would be much larger than Bullock). More than likely, they'll be somewhere between 6-1 and 4-3 and in perfectly good position for another AFC South title and playoff push. They would then have a full week without game preparation to think big picture, reflect on Bullock with a much larger sample size than they have now, and see if they believe in him to make big kicks in meaningful games come December and January.
If they don't, that's the week to bring in a handful of veteran kickers for tryouts and consider cutting ties. It's too soon at the moment, but expect Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith to keep a very close eye on Bullock over the next few weeks.