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Dallas Cowboys kicker regains some confidence during playoff loss; Texas governor tweets dig

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) reacts after missing a point after touchdown kick in the first half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.

Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher appeared to regain some of his confidence in Sunday night’s divisional round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, 19 to 12.

He had an extra point kick blocked in the first half that many pundits said he would have missed anyway. But he successfully kicked two field goals in the second half in a losing battle.

Questions were raised by fans after the loss of his reliable regular season mojo at the worst possible time, a potential playoff run to the Super Bowl.

He missed four extra point attempts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the previous wild card playoff game, tying an NFL worst record.

The doubts even came from the Texas governor’s mansion. Gov. Greg Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since a paralyzing accident in 1984, tweeted “I can kick as good” as Maher.

The governor’s tweet opened up harsh criticism for him in return, with comments saying Texans trust Maher more than him. The state’s power outages under ERCOT and migrant issues during Abbott's tenure were also held up as examples of his own failure to successfully kick away some of the state’s major problems.

Maher will apparently keep his job, at least for now, along with head coach Mike McCarthy, who supported Maher through his struggles, despite another disappointing end of the season for America’s Team.

Before the game, TPR spoke with some experts and retired football players about the psychology of kickers and the philosophy of facing down potential failure in sports and in life. That story is below.

A lot of eyes will be on Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher as the team plays the 49ers in a divisional round playoff game on Sunday in San Francisco.

Maher is headed into what many expect to be a close game after a historically bad game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, missing four extra points. The difference in the 49ers game could come down to a field goal. With the team's possible Super Bowl run at stake, many fans wonder if Maher will bounce back.

West Texan Tony Franklin, a former NFL kicker, is quick to defend Maher. Franklin said he overheard diners at a restaurant criticizing the 33-year-old Dallas kicker and he felt compelled to say something to them.

"I said 'have any of ya'll ever gone out and tried to kick a field goal or extra point in a National Football League game?' And they said 'no.' And I said — 'well — I have. And I was a kicker. And I know what it's like,' " he told Texas Public Radio. "Until ya'll have done it, you need to get off his back and leave him alone.' "

Franklin is now retired to his ranch near Junction, Texas. The former barefooted kicker played for the Texas A&M Aggies and later the Eagles, Patriots, and Dolphins of the NFL from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

Former NFL kicker Tony Franklin.jpg
Texas Sports Hall of Fame

Franklin said he saw what happened to Maher in the game.

"I just think he was dropping his right shoulder a little bit. When you drop your right shoulder, you kick the ball to the right, and then he over compensated. If you're leaning too far left, you have a tendency to dip your left shoulder, and it makes you pull the ball to the left," he said. "But the last one, his shoulders were perfect."

Franklin believes Maher will watch game video and make the adjustments he needs to make as a professional player and be ready for the 49ers, especially with his coaches and teammates supporting him.

"I think it's important that they've shown confidence in him. They went ahead just in case, I know, and signed a guy to the kick on the practice squad. But I think he'll bounce back fine," he said. "And it wouldn't surprise me to see him make a field goal to beat the 49ers this weekend."

While many fans believe kickers follow superstitions, like wearing certain socks to be successful, it's really about finding grace under fire.

Former University of Texas at San Antonio kicker Hunter Duplessis, now with the XFL's Houston Roughnecks, said kickers rely on routine to calm nerves and improve performance.

"Routine in a sense of maybe you get three warmup kicks before you go out on the field every time," he said. "Maybe you take one really deep breath. Things like that help them focus on their craft."

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports
Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) kicks a point after touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.

Athletes can get back on track with the help of a licensed sports psychologist. Dr. Julie Wiernik, owner of the Texas Center for Sports Psychology in San Antonio, helps players make adjustments to deal with the symptoms of mental and physical stress that interfere with what she calls a "critical moment of performance," like making an extra point.

"So, at that moment, what is he getting distracted with?" she said. "Either he is physically getting really worked up or mentally getting worked up."

Wiernik agrees routine, like breathing exercises and muscle relaxation, is the answer to a lot of stressors and not superstitions, which she does not endorse at all.

Dr. William Land, an associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said sports psychologists work to get athletes to perform their feats like many of us tie our shoes.

"Your brain, your body...automatically control it without you thinking about the steps. So, that's the way it has to be in sports with these highly trained skills. We have to get them, the brain and body, to control it sort of automatically. And so, we have to get them to stop thinking too much about how to execute that action."

Franklin said a lot of kicking is mental.

Courtesy photo
XFL Houston Roughnecks
Houston Roughnecks kicker Hunter Duplessis

'Kicking is six inches between the ears, brother. That's the difference," he said. "You just have to go out there. You can't go out on to the field at any point in time with any self doubts because if you do, you're just opening yourself up to missing your kick. You have to go out there with confidence every single time."

Franklin said everyone can have a bad game, even seven-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady, who the Cowboys beat last Monday.

"Look how bad Brady looked the other night. Dallas' defense was responsible for most of it, but he could not hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle."

Let's face it — we can all have a bad day at the office. A football player's office just happens to be a field. According to these experts, it's how you recover that matters. Let's see how Brett Maher does this Sunday.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian