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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Can’t-Miss Kid: Bengals’ Rookie Kicker Aims for Perfection

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The confidence of the Cincinnati Bengals stretches further than their spunky quarterback and their griddy-ing, yard-guzzling rookie wide receiver.

Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have been credited, rightfully, with powering the upstart Bengals to the Super Bowl, where they will face the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. But that fearlessness flows all the way through Cincinnati’s roster to its rookie kicker: A 22-year-old former soccer player with an endearing demeanor and an ironclad right leg.

Evan McPherson garnered national attention when Burrow told reporters that McPherson declared the Bengals were going to the A.F.C. championship game before knocking his 52-yard field goal through the uprights against Tennessee in the divisional round. A week later, McPherson, who was the only kicker drafted in 2021, nailed a 31-yard kick in overtime against Kansas City to send the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in 34 years.

McPherson practices kicking so relentlessly that he has said he can rely on muscle memory during games.Credit…David Eulitt/Getty Images

“I think you could put a heart-rate monitor on him, and the first PAT we kick in a practice on a Wednesday, I think his heart rate is going to stay the same for the game winner on Sunday evening in Kansas City,” said Darrin Simmons, the Bengals’ special teams coordinator.

That confidence, McPherson told reporters, comes from countless hours of kicking balls through goal posts, so persistently that he can rely on muscle memory during games.

“You’ve really got to walk out there and know in your mind that there’s really no way you can miss the kick,” McPherson said.

Cincinnati’s decision to draft McPherson mended years of mediocrity and misfortune at the position. In 2016, the Bengals cut veteran Mike Nugent, who had been with the team since 2010, after he missed six extra points. Randy Bullock, who replaced Nugent, missed about half of his kicks longer than 50 yards. The Bengals drafted Jake Elliott in 2017, but he lost a preseason kicking competition to Bullock and was stashed on Cincinnati’s practice squad. He ended up with the Eagles and later set the record for the longest kick by a rookie in the Super Bowl during Philadelphia’s championship that season.

McPherson at a fan rally in Cincinnati on Monday ahead of the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.Credit…Jeff Dean/Associated Press

McPherson, who was the Florida Gators’ kicker in college, had the highest field-goal percentage (85 percent) of any kicker in the history of the Southeastern Conference. He credited the raucous SEC crowds with preparing him for the N.F.L.

In getting to know McPherson, whom the Bengals snapped up in the fifth round last spring, Burrow said he tested the rookie’s poise, “poking and prodding” him with jokes and locker-room banter to see how he would react.

“He gave it right back to me,” Burrow said, “and as soon as he did that, I knew what we had.”

McPherson made 28 of 33 field goals in the regular season and missed just two of 48 extra-point attempts. He was perfect from inside 40 yards and made nine kicks of at least 50 yards.

In perhaps the most disastrous day of kicking, in a regular-season loss to Green Bay in October — there were a combined five missed field goals in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime — McPherson missed two kicks. He attempted a potential game-winning field goal in overtime, but as the ball veered past the left upright, McPherson, unaware that the kick was no good, could be seen on the television broadcast celebrating as though the Bengals had won.

McPherson was mobbed by teammates after his game-winning field goal against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

“I think you probably learn from your misses more than your makes,” McPherson said of that game. He added: “Just knowing that that’s just one kick. It doesn’t define me. That the next one is the only one that matters. So just to fight through a little bit of adversity is always good for kickers.”

McPherson has been perfect in the playoffs — he has made all 12 of his field-goal attempts — and needs just three more in the Super Bowl to break the record for most made in a single postseason. That record, for now, belongs to the retired Patriots and Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who in 24 seasons scored the most points in N.F.L. history. Vinatieri made 14 field goals in the 2006 postseason, his 11th as a pro. McPherson is on the cusp of the record as a rookie.

Even though Vinatieri’s first season in the N.F.L. — 1996 — was before McPherson was born, McPherson told reporters that he studied Vinatieri’s 10-year run with the Patriots and drew inspiration from his career.

“I just appreciate him for everything he’s done for our position,” McPherson said.

McPherson’s poise, and fearlessness, can be found throughout the Cincinnati roster.Credit…Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

On Tuesday, Simmons told reporters that McPherson’s poise mirrors that of the team, which has been evident in the Bengals’ ability to mount upsets against the Titans and Kansas City on the way to the Super Bowl.

Tight end C.J. Uzomah, whose status is unclear after he injured his left knee in the A.F.C. championship game, compared Burrow and McPherson’s distinct displays of confidence to those of children on a playground.

Uzomah sees McPherson as the mischievous little boy who provokes the older children and then runs away, flashing a smug smile over his shoulder. Burrow, he said, is the playground’s authoritarian, the person whose mere presence keeps his peers in check.

“Joe is just stern like ‘I’m that guy,’” Uzomah said. “And Evan is the little 7-year-old who’s just running out there, and doesn’t know any better, and kicking game-winners.”

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