The Buffalo Bills aren’t getting what they need from Stephen Hauschka.
That was abundantly clear last week, when the team’s veteran kicker missed a pair of field goals in a 19-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Hauschka’s issues, however, date back to well before last Sunday. In his last 14 games, the kicker known as “Hausch Money” has been anything but, going 14 of 24 on field goals – a success rate of 58.3%. Over the course of nearly an entire season, that’s unacceptable by NFL standards. Leaguewide in 2019, kickers have made 450 of 557 attempts, a success rate of 80.7%. Hauschka is at 61.5%, making 8 of his 13 attempts.
“My performance up to this point this season hasn't been to the level that I'd like,” he said. “It's tricky, because just one game can make it go that way. That's just the way my position is – a couple attempts here and there. Sometimes it's nice early in the season to get a bunch of field-goal attempts. I haven't really got that, so now I'm sitting with the numbers the way they are halfway past the season. I've got an uphill climb, for sure.”
To be clear, there is no painting going on. The numbers are the numbers, and they’re not good enough. That’s especially true when the Bills’ offense is struggling to score points, as was the case against Cleveland and has been throughout this season.
Hauschka’s first miss, from 34 yards out, would have given the team a 10-9 lead at halftime. He had been great from that distance leading up to the game, converting his last 69 attempts from 30-39 yards. He pulled this one wide left, however, an inexcusable miss.
The second miss, from 53 yards out, is more forgivable given the distance, but the circumstances made it even more costly. If successful, it would have tied the game, 19-19, in the dying seconds. Hauschka said the attempt was at the very edge of his range, which seems odd given that the conditions in FirstEnergy Stadium were described by coach Sean McDermott as being “favorable.”
A 53-yarder, then, should not come up short.
“I just wasn't good enough on Sunday,” Hauschka said. “Got to just hit the reset button and do everything to prepare this week and get back to my normal week. It's a tough job in that you have to be on every single week. It's my job to be at peak levels every single Sunday. I wasn't this past game. That's the way I look at it. I've got to get back to my routine and just feel great this week.”
Hauschka described himself as feeling “off,” heading into the game against Cleveland.
“It’s not like the first time I've ever felt off,” he said. “There's a lot of times as a professional athlete where you maybe feel less than ideal, but you make it through the game and you find ways to get through the game and make kicks. Whatever it is, whether it's a physical thing, whether it's a mental thing, technical thing, professional athletes are great at compensating. I didn't get through the game. I look at each game as a product of how I feel.”
As for why he felt off, Hauschka was cryptic.
“Just didn't feel right,” he said. “I'm not going to say anything, because I don't want (it) to sound like excuses, but I've got to feel right heading into the game, if that makes sense.”
Kickers are like golfers in that they can go through “swing slumps.” Even the best of the best aren’t immune to them.
“You look around the league, this stuff happens,” Hauschka said. “It makes you stronger as a kicker to go through it. It’s not easy. It’s not what I want, but it will make me better prepared moving on. I've been playing a long time in this league, and I look at that as a fluky game for me.”
Whether Haushcka’s performance against the Browns was indeed a fluke or the continuation of a trend will be determined in the weeks ahead, but there’s no denying it’s been an ongoing problem.
Hauschka finished 2018 making 22 of 28 field goals, a 78.6% success rate that ranked 28th in the NFL and was the worst of his career since he became a full-time starter in 2011 with Seattle. It’s only fair to point out Haushcka did have to work with three different holders in 2018.
“A lot of people don't realize that working with a new holder changes everything,” said second-year punter Corey Bojorquez, who had the job for the first eight games of 2018 before getting hurt and has handled it in every game this season. “It's a totally different tempo and everything. It took us, probably four weeks last year just to get that groove going. He was making his kicks, but it wasn't fully clicking on all cylinders.”
Hauschka’s struggles date back to Week 13 of the 2018 season, when he missed an extra point and a 55-yard field goal at Miami. The following week, Hauschka had a 49-yard field goal blocked at the end of the second quarter against the New York Jets. As he was chasing after the play, Hauschka absorbed a cheap shot from behind by the Jets’ Henry Anderson that sent him flying to the turf. He immediately reached for his lower back after the hit.
Hauschka came back in the second half and made a 29-yard field goal, but was wide left on a 54-yard attempt in the fourth quarter. He appeared on the injury report the following week with a right hip injury and was questionable to face the Detroit Lions, but was able to play and convert two extra points.
Hauschka’s 2018 season took a turn toward the bizarre after that. In consecutive weeks, he came up short on field goals that should be well within an NFL kicker’s range. In a Week 16 loss to New England, he hit the cross bar from 43 yards away. The following week against Miami, he came up short from just 42 yards out against Miami. That game was played with temperatures in the 30s, with winds between 10-15 mph.
For an NFL kicker to come up short from those distances in those conditions is perplexing at best.
Nevertheless, the Bills saw fit to give Hauschka a contract extension this offseason. It’s a team-friendly deal that has him signed through the 2021 season. In reality, though, the Bills could get out of the deal for minimal salary-cap damage as soon as this upcoming offseason. Hauschka is scheduled to count $3.05 million against the cap in 2020 and $3.175 million in 2021. If the Bills were to cut him after this year, he would count $1.25 million in “dead money” against the 2020 cap, while saving the team $1.8 million in cap space.
Obviously, the Bills hope it doesn’t come to that. A reliable kicker is not to be taken for granted. Just look at the Chicago Bears last season. They may have been a Super Bowl contender if not for their failures in the kicking game. General Manager Brandon Beane basically purchased insurance in extending Hauschka’s contract. If he had a big 2019 season, another team might have outbid the Bills for Hauschka, who at 34 years old is not old for the position.
For most of his career, Hauschka has been reliable. Prior to the last 14 games, he had made 45 of 50 field goals with the Bills, a 90% success rate that placed him as one of the league’s best. He set a team record in 2017 with seven field goals of 50-plus yards, and in that same season set an NFL record by converting 13 straight field goals from 50-plus yards, dating back to his time with the Seahawks.
That track record is a big reason why McDermott has been unwavering in reiterating his confidence in him.
“It's about knowing Stephen, knowing how he practices, knowing what I see in practice,” the coach said. “Guys are going to have an off day here and there. I also know the types of kicks he's made over the course of his career, whether it be in Seattle or here, in big moments, in big games. That's why I remain confident in Stephen.”
Like that golfer struggling with his swing who spends extra time on the driving range, Hauschka has been hard at work this week to correct what’s gone wrong.
“Nobody works harder,” special teams coordinator Heath Farwell said. “He's a professional that takes his job really serious – really a perfectionist that cares a ton. Nobody works on his body, the mental side of it, more than him. Stuff that a lot of guys don't see, he's out there doing it. We're in the stadium every day, literally, just trying to get as many kicks as we can. It's unfortunate he didn't make those two kicks (against the Browns), but it's an all-around deal. We've got to do a better job as a group. It doesn't fall solely on him. Whether it's the protection, the snap, the kick, we've just got to be better as a group. I've got to be better.”
Weather is a factor
There is no doubt kicking in Buffalo is one of the most challenging environments in the NFL. It’s not just the cold, either. The wind has been a big factor in three of the team’s home games even before the temperature turns frigid.
“It's a difficult place to kick, to be honest,” Hauschka said. “I'm still learning everything about what it means to be a Buffalo Bill kicker. It's a challenge, for sure. I'm trying to grow and be the best kicker I can be here.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, all five of Hauschka’s misses have come at home. The first, in Week 3 against Cincinnati, can be excused as it came from 62 yards right before halftime. The others, though, have been costly. Hauschka missed a 49-yard field goal before halftime against New England that could have cut the Bills’ deficit to 13-6. He missed a 53-yarder before halftime against Philadelphia in Week 8 that could have cut the Bills’ deficit to 11-10.
“It's very difficult to kick here in Buffalo,” long snapper Reid Ferguson said. “Credit to the past specialists that have performed at a high level, Steve Christie, Brian Moorman, those guys that were so successful here. That's really tough to do.”
Maybe so, but that’s what Hauschka is paid for. His $5.025 million cap hit this season is the biggest in the NFL for a kicker. The Bills should rightfully expect more for their money.
Hauschka has missed his last five attempts from 50-plus yards, including all three this season. From 2014-18, NFL kickers made a shade under 70% of their field goals from 50-53 yards, and 60% from 54-57 yards.
“I feel like they're very close. I mean, there's a lot of factors that go into making a kick from that distance,” Hauschka said. “You can paint it however you want. I don't care. I don't really care what anybody thinks about it. I'm kicking the ball well. I'm going to continue to prepare. I love Buffalo. I think it's a great place to live. I love raising my family here. Love my teammates, love this team. I don't look at what the media says. I don't listen to any of that. My job is to go out there and kick for this team, and reading what people have to say about it doesn't help me.”
Hauschka seemed taken aback by the amount of interviews he did this week. It was certainly more than what is usual, but it’s what comes with the territory. Those same interviewers will be there when the results turn in the other direction and he makes a 53-yarder to win a game. Perhaps that moment comes as soon as Sunday.
“There's no question he's going to bounce back,” Farwell said. “I'm excited to see how he does this week. I've known him for a ton of years, and that's what he does.”
Rookie tight end Dawson Knox missed practice Thursday with what McDermott described as knee soreness. Knox is expected to practice Friday and, barring a setback, should be able to play Sunday against the Dolphins.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes was limited in practice with a groin injury.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was named the Bills’ nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, the NFL announced Thursday. Each of the league’s 32 teams nominate one of their players for the award, which recognizes players around the league who exemplify outstanding sportsmanship on the field.
The award, which was created in 2014 to honor the late founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is presented to a player who best demonstrates the qualities of on-field sportsmanship. It will be awarded the night before Super Bowl LIV on the NFL Honors show. A panel of NFL legends will select eight finalists from the 32 nominees, and a winner will then be chosen by current NFL players. Teams cannot vote for their own player.