Cowboys trying to solve kicking problem; Graham up next

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shayne Graham was playing catch with the rest of the Dallas Cowboys' kickers on the sideline when he heard a whistle blow.

Thinking it was his cue, Graham trotted out onto the field.

Only it wasn't his cue. He figured that out pretty quickly and sheepishly returned to the sideline.

"Way to go, Shayne," teased fellow kicker David Buehler. "Way to be ready!"

It was a simple mistake, especially for someone on his second day with the club.

Yet that scene during a walkthrough Wednesday also summed up the recent plight of Dallas kickers - a bunch of guys who know what to do and are eager to do it, but don't always do it right.

The Cowboys finished third-worst in the NFL in field goal accuracy each of the past two seasons, and are tied for worst over the past five seasons combined. So this preseason they're rounding up all the candidates they can find.

Graham becomes the fourth kicker on the roster, joining incumbent Buehler and a pair of rookies, Dan Bailey and Kai Forbath.

On the surface, Dallas has a strong crop. Graham is the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history and went 12 for 12 for New England last season. Forbath was crowned the top kicker in college football in 2009, and Bailey won the award in 2010.

The reality, however, isn't so grand.

Two teams gave up on Graham last year and another dumped him this preseason. That team was Washington, which tied Dallas for that worst accuracy rate over the past five seasons.

The Redskins dropped Graham after he missed kicks of 29 and 49 yards in their preseason opener.

Bailey and Forbath signed as undrafted free agents. Dallas probably wouldn't have signed Forbath had coaches been wowed by Bailey, who has been around since the start of training camp. (He was added after another candidate, veteran Kris Brown, was cut for salary cap purposes.)

Then there's Buehler, the fun-loving California kid whose ability to thump a ball has never been in doubt.

Buehler has the highest rate of touchbacks on kickoffs in the NFL over the past two seasons, but booting the ball into the end zone and booting it through the uprights require different skill sets.

The Cowboys limited him to kickoffs his rookie year, then asked him to try field goals last season. He made only 24 of 32, and was more accurate from 40-49 yards and even from 50-plus than he was from 30-39. He also missed two extra points.

Buehler is dealing with a hip injury, so he's not even able to fight for his job right now. Worse still for him, new rules moving up the kickoff make it easier for anyone to reach the end zone, neutralizing the need for what he does best.

Buehler kicked in the preseason opener and made his only try, a 42-yarder. It barely made it inside the left upright, practically grazing the pole.

Bailey was the only healthy kicker on the roster in the last preseason game. It was a great chance to prove himself, only the Cowboys never got in position to try a field goal. They could've gone for a short one in the final minutes, but coach Jason Garrett decided it was too short to prove anything so he let the offense go for it. Two days later, Graham was here.

Graham and Bailey are expected to kick in the next preseason game, Saturday night at Minnesota.

"It's a battle," kicking coach Chris Boniol said Thursday. "We're working every day, trying to put them in as many situations as we can and how it plays out. But we'd love to get more attempts in the game. That would be nice."

The best coaches can do is create as many tense moments in practice as possible. There are kicks during team drills and in situational work, like the two-minute offense. And don't discount routine kicking practice. When there are several other guys standing there trying to take your job, that's pressure, too.

Still, Boniol said, "there's something about those games. It's more realistic. And it counts. Even though it's preseason, it still counts."

Garrett needs someone he can trust because he needs to get all the points he can out of his offense. That's always true, of course, but with added importance this season with a defense likely to give up a lot of points.

Dallas allowed the most points in franchise history last season and returns most of the same players, albeit with a new coordinator.

Rob Ryan is likely to shore things up, but the early indications - and his history at his last two stops - is that there are some growing pains.

Graham knows all about a team with a low margin for error. The majority of his career was spent with the Bengals.

In Dallas, he's already embraced the club's tradition and perhaps scouted the wide-open competition for this job when he said, "There just not a better place to be."

Garrett said it only made sense to give Graham a look. He did well in a tryout Monday and there was a roster spot available.

"We feel good about Shayne and what he's done in this league," Garrett said. "We just want to see him go through a practice week with us and see how he responds being on our football team."

Notes: On Wednesday morning, WR Miles Austin aggravated the hamstring injury that kept him out of the San Diego game. "He came back and really was practicing fairly well and I think his hamstring just tightened up on him toward the end of practice," Garrett said. Austin is considered day to day and could miss the next preseason game.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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