Rams put their best foot forward
By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Rams veteran Jeff Wilkins has made 298 consecutive extra-point kicks, but he says the streak is something he is better off ignoring.
Of all the areas that Bob Ligashesky must address as he tries to upgrade the Rams' special teams, place-kicking has been a pleasant exception.
Essentially, Ligashesky leaves Jeff Wilkins alone. "I trust him," said Ligashesky, who is in his first season as the team's special-teams coach. "I mostly observe and then we discuss."
Usually, there is little to talk about. Wilkins' streak of 298 successful extra-point kicks is third-longest in NFL history, and his 81.6 percent field-goal accuracy ranks with the best among active kickers.
During the bye week, the Rams rewarded Wilkins with a four-year contract extension, through the 2009 season, worth $6.4 million. "It feels great to know that the Rams wanted me back," he said. "There's no other place I wanted to go."
Wilkins, 33, is in his 12th NFL season and ninth with the Rams. The only current kickers with longer team tenures are Detroit's Jason Hanson (14 years), Denver's Jason Elam (13), Carolina's John Kasay (11) and Baltimore's Matt Stover (10).
There have been times, though, when Wilkins' days with the Rams seemed close to expiration. "I've been at the top, and I've been way down at the bottom," he acknowledged. "I was probably one kick away from being cut a couple of different times."
One episode in 2002 stands out: After Wilkins flubbed a 42-yard field goal try in a 49-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, coach Mike Martz unloaded on him.
"I asked what happened, and he said he kicked the ground. That's hard for me to accept," Martz growled the next day at his weekly news conference. "I've lost a lot of confidence in Jeff."
The following Sunday, Wilkins' third field goal, a 26-yarder with 20 seconds remaining, gave the Rams a 30-28 victory over Arizona, and all was well again. "It's a matter of being able to try not to get too high and try not to get too low," Wilkins explained. "You live and learn. Each year, you get a little wiser."
Emotional strength is vital, Ligashesky noted. "He has such an air of confidence about him," he said.
Holder Dane Looker does his part in keeping Wilkins on task when they're on the field. He said they prepare for his kicks the way a golfer lines up a putt. "We kind of play it like I'm his caddie," Looker said. "I'll say, 'Hey, where are you looking?' And he'll tell me where. I'll say, 'OK, that's a good spot.' ... That kind of helps him get his mind off the kick, just a little distraction for him."
Wilkins was an all-state kicker at Austin Fitch High in Youngstown, Ohio, where he also played quarterback and free safety. He kicked and punted at Youngstown State, and Dallas signed him as an undrafted rookie in 1994.
After the Cowboys released him during training camp, Wilkins wound up in Philadelphia, where he kicked off in six games for the Eagles. Then they, too, sent him packing. San Francisco signed Wilkins, and he spent two seasons as the *****' primary kicker. His 30 field goals in 1996 remain a Frisco record.
He became a salary-cap casualty in the offseason, and the Rams lured him to St. Louis with a four-year, $2.1 million offer. It proved to be a sound investment.
Wilkins holds a number of franchise marks, including career scoring (932 points). He was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2003 season, when his 163 points led the NFL.
"He's the best I've ever been with," interim head coach Joe Vitt said. "We had a kid in Seattle, Norm Johnson, who was really a good kicker. But I think Wilky's made bigger kicks in his career. The bigger the kick, the more the pressure, the better he enjoys it."
Johnson is second in league annals in consecutive extra points made, with 301 (1991-99). Denver's Jason Elam tops the list, with 371 (1993-2002). Consider, however, that before Wilkins hooked a PAT try wide left on Dec. 27, 1998, in San Francisco, he had nailed 100 in a row.
Had that kick gone through, his streak would be at 399 ... and counting. Not that Wilkins is paying all that much attention.
"I used to, back four or five years ago, look at numbers and see where I am. Now, I don't even do that," he said. "Whenever you start doing that, you're starting to think individually, and I don't like that."
Looker said the streak isn't a topic of conversation. "We've never even talked about that," Looker said. "Really, I didn't know about it until a couple of weeks ago."
Wilkins has converted 23 extra points and 11 of 13 field goals this season. Seventeen of his 42 kickoffs have reached the end zone, and he's among the league leaders in touchbacks. He's had to make just one tackle after getting nine in 2004, when he ranked seventh on the team in special-teams stops.
"I still take pride in every once in a while getting in on it and trying to feel like a real player," Wilkins said. "But I'm glad that our coverage teams have been doing great this year, because each time I get hit, it hurts a little more than it did in the past."
Besides, the Rams are paying him big bucks to score, not tackle. "You get the ball to the 35-yard line, if we don't ... turn it over or get some stupid penalties, we get points on the board," Vitt said. "That's huge."
Re: Rams put their best foot forward
I am glad the we signed Wilkins on for more years. He has been very consistant. I am glad that he can tackle and I am glad that we have not seen him tackle much this year. I am also glad that we have Dane Looker as his holder since I think a big key to his success is having Looker there to keep in him calm and relaxed.
Don't you hate when you use a word so much that it starts to sound ridiculous. Glad, glad, glad.....
I am glad today is here....it is a good day to play some football.:D :football: