Wednesday, August 22, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
With each passing year, Jeff Wilkins’ fear only grows. It’s not the type of fear that comes with having to make an important kick in a big game.
It’s the type of fear that one day he will wake up and his ability to almost automatically kick a football through uprights set up just about any distance from where he is will be gone.
“You never know,” Wilkins said. “You see guys all the time, like Morten Anderson and Gary Anderson, that kick forever and then you see some guys who just kind off disappear so you always question the first time you go back out there and you hit one like, ‘Ooooh.’ Then usually you come back out and start feeling fine and know you still got it. But it’s one of those things you never know that’s why you just keep training and hopefully it pays off.”
As that fear lingers, Wilkins has taken every step possible to prevent that from happening. By all accounts, his methods have worked.
Starting about four years ago, Wilkins began to alter his preseason preparation with the goal of being able to preserve his leg in anticipation of the preseason.
The plan involves not kicking a ball at all for months at a time after the season ends. By the end of a normal season, Wilkins says the time off is a must.
“By the end of the year my leg is fried and it gets a little worse every year,” Wilkins said. “I used to take off a couple of months and start in March. Now March has turned into April which turns into May. I start lifting in February to try to get my leg strength back and then start kicking in May, June. But each year I take a little longer to start kicking. You only have so many bullets in the chamber, so you try to use them at the right time.”
Never was it more evident that Wilkins would need all his bullets than at the beginning of the 2006 season. When coach Scott Linehan was hired before last season, Wilkins sat down with him and discussed the plan.
Linehan agreed it was a good idea to keep Wilkins on the same plan and allow him to kick at his own pace.
At 34, Wilkins continued his run of consistency with one of his finest seasons in 2006. Wilkins booted six field goals to lead the Rams to a win in the opener against Denver and never stopped kicking until he had posted 131 points as he went 32 of 37 on field goals and made all 35 of his extra points.
In this preseason, Wilkins has showed no signs of slowing as he has started kicking regularly in the past week. In Tuesday’s practice, Wilkins was making kicks from long distances and drilling kickoffs deep into the end zone.
Wilkins will kick against the Raiders this week in his preseason debut.
“It’s feeling really good right now and that’s the whole idea to keep it fresh going into the first game of the year,” Wilkins said. “Now things are hitting on all cylinders. Now it’s time to get into the game and do it. You never forget it but you really can’t simulate it in practice like you can in a game.”
If things go according to plan this season, Wilkins will continue to leave his mark as one of the most accurate and consistent kickers in league history. He has made 346 consecutive extra points which is the second longest streak in NFL history. The record belongs to Jason Elam at 371, meaning Wilkins is within legitimate reach this season.
And Wilkins is already the team’s all time leading scorer with 1,127 points. It’s that kind of production that allows Linehan to rest easy when it comes to his kicker.
“There really is no limit to taking a shot at three points when it comes to where you have to be and those kinds of things,” Linehan said. “You don’t get too concerned about him because he’s so good from deep. Lot of times there is a minimum number you’re trying to shoot for when you’re moving into the other team’s territory. But as soon as you cross the 50, the consideration is there. Plus he’s so accurate, and knocks it through when you need it the most.”
Wilkins attributes a lot of his success in recent seasons to finally having a consistent holder and snapper he can count on. Wilkins, Dane Looker and Chris Massey have been together for a few years now; something Wilkins says makes a big difference.
“When I would come into camp for years, it was like ‘Man, we have a new snapper, a new holder,’” Wilkins said. “It wasn’t a matter of getting myself ready, it was a matter of us all three ready and on the same page together. I don’t have to tell Dane how I like it, Massey gets the string forward 90-95 percent of the time and that just makes my job easier. I can sit back and say ‘OK and only worry about myself and put a good stroke on the ball.’ I know it’s going to be there.”
SEATS AVAILABLE: The Rams have plenty of tickets left for the home opener on Sept. 9 against the Carolina Panthers.
The team announced Wednesday that the games against Green Bay and Pittsburgh are sold out, but there are still a good number of tickets remaining for the rest of the schedule.
The final preseason game against Kansas City has 1,000 tickets available and about 1,800 remain for the season opener.
Single-game tickets start at $35 and can be acquired through stlouisrams.com, any Ticket Master outlet or by calling 314-241-1888, 314-421-4400 in Metro St. Louis; 866-646-8849 in Central Missouri and 618-222-2900 in Illinois.
RAM BITS: Linehan said Wednesday that guard Richie Incognito will not play against Oakland as he recovers from an ankle injury. Claude Terrell and Milford Brown will split time in his place with Terrell likely getting the first opportunity…Brett Romberg will start at center against the Raiders and Andy McCollum will rotate in at various points of the game. Guard Mark Setterstrom also is expected to get some work in the middle…Todd Steussie returned to practice Wednesday as he recovers from a neck injury…Dominique Thompson (ribs) and Jerome Carter (foot) aren’t likely to play against the Raiders with Carter almost certainly out.