Back home again: Falcons kicker Elam thrilled to be in Atlanta

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -Jason Elam is still getting used to the uniform. The red jersey. The black helmet with the Falcons logo on each side.

"I'm feeling pretty weird," he joked Monday, strolling off the field after another training camp practice on a sweltering Georgia morning.

Otherwise, he's got no complaints about going from one of the NFL's flagship franchises to one that is starting over yet again.

For Elam, this is home.

The record-setting kicker signed with the Atlanta Falcons during the offseason after a brilliant 15-year run in Denver, where he made it to three Pro Bowls; played on two Super Bowl-winning teams, including one that beat the Falcons for the title; and equaled the NFL mark with a 63-yard field goal.

While perfectly content during all those years with the Broncos, Elam never lost sight of where he grew up, a child of Atlanta's sprawling suburbs.

He first made a name for himself at Brookwood High School, right down the road in Gwinnett County. During his first decade with the Broncos, he still kept an offseason home not far from the Falcons' current training facility. Elam always figured he would return some day, even after he married a Denver native.

"I really enjoyed the organization out there," Elam said. "But I always said if I didn't play with Denver, the one place I would want to play is Atlanta. And it just happened to completely fall into place."

Did it ever. His mother still lives here. Just a few months before Elam signed a four-year, $9 million contract with the Falcons, his brother, who serves in the military, was reassigned to a base in Atlanta.

"It's really been a blessing just to come back home," Elam said.

The Falcons have no complaints, either. Facing a massive rebuilding job after quarterback Michael Vick was sent off to prison for running a dogfighting operation on the side, Atlanta will likely struggle to score touchdowns. But at least it can turn to Elam to put three on the board, usually a pretty good bet considering he's scored more than 100 points every year he's been in the league. Elam finds himself just five field goals away from 400 in his career.

Last season, Elam kicked four winning field goals, the most in the NFL since 1990, and closed out the year by making his last 15 attempts.

"When you get the ball down there and are not able to put it in the end zone, you've got to have a guy who can put it between the pipes," said Mike Smith, the new Falcons coach. "That's something Jason has done for a long time. We were excited to be able to acquire him. And I know he's been really anxious to get back here to Atlanta. This is his home."

Elam's career numbers - he's made 395 of 490 field-goal attempts, a percentage just under 81 percent - are especially impressive when you consider he played half his games in Denver's often harsh weather. Swirling wind, howling snow and frigid temperatures aren't exactly ideal conditions for a kicker.

There are no such concerns with the Falcons, who play their home games inside the nice, comfy Georgia Dome.

"I'm really excited about that," Elam said, breaking into a wide grin. "I'll sleep very well at night knowing it's going to be 70 degrees with no wind when I get out there."

Now 38, Elam readily concedes he's into that take-it-one-year-at-a-time mode, though he sees no reason he can't play well into his 40s. His predecessor with the Falcons, Morten Andersen, was still kicking last year at 47. Gary Anderson hung around until 45. John Carney had a job at 43.

Sure, Elam's leg isn't quite as strong as it once was, but how many times will he be called on to kick a 60-yard field goal? Besides, he's probably in better shape than he was earlier in his career. He weighed 216 pounds at one point, but he now checks in at a svelte 190. The only way to tell he's the senior member of the youthful Falcons is the wrinkles around his eyes, the flecks of gray in his goatee.

No one will be able to see those when he's got his helmet on.

"I still feel young," he said. "I really do."

Elam has changed his attitude over the years. He's not the gung-ho kicker who turned footballs into rockets with a swing of his powerful right leg. He now realizes he's not trying to send every ball to the moon - just get it through the uprights.

"The thing I realized six, seven, eight years ago was, hey, the average attempt in the NFL is 35 yards," he said. "When I go out there to kick a 42-yard field goal, it doesn't have to go 55 yards. It only has to go 43. So I changed up some stuff."

Elam now runs up to his kicks with a more straight-on approach, which might cost him a bit of power but improves his accuracy. He actually got the idea from a golfing great.

"I remember Jack Nicklaus saying one time that in a round of golf, 75 percent of his shots were mis-hits. But no one ever knew it because the ball always went so straight. It's about the same with me, to be honest with you," Elam said.

"When I was young, I could crush it. I hit some beautiful balls wide right. They were way up in the net. It was very impressive, but you don't get any points for that. I just want to make field goals."

The Falcons have plenty of jobs up for grabs in training camp, but kicker isn't one of them.

"When we signed Elam, I was like, 'That's three for sure,"' receiver Joe Horn said. "If we get to the 40 and go three-and-out, it's all still good."

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