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NFL kicker: The most perilous and pitiless position in sports

On Monday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer stood before reporters at his regularly scheduled press conference and addressed the team's most recent roster transaction following a 29-29 tie with the Packers.

Less than 24 hours earlier, rookie kicker Daniel Carlson had missed three field-goal attempts at Lambeau Field, including the 35-yarder that would've given Minnesota a massive division win against its hated NFC North rival. The struggles had cost him his job. The first question for the coach: What went into the decision to let Carlson go?

"It was tough," Zimmer began. "We saw Daniel as a kid with a bright future with us -- and I still think he has a bright future. Unfortunately, some kicks got away from him on Sunday and we felt we had to make the move. We wish Daniel the best, and I'm sure he'll land on his feet and have a long and successful career in the National Football League."

Actually, no. Mike Zimmer didn't say that at all.

In reality, he answered the question with the patience and empathy of a DMV clerk at 4:52 on a Friday.

What went into the decision to let Daniel Carlson go?

"Did you see the game?"

Was it an easy decision?

"Yeah, it was pretty easy."

Fin. Done. That was it. Daniel Carlson, a second-team All-American selected in the fifth round of this spring's draft, the winner of an extended summer camp battle with veteran incumbent Kai Forbath, was history after three bad hours at the office. And as far as Mike Zimmer was concerned, this history was already ancient. The Minnesota Vikings had moved on. They were on to Dan Bailey.

It's hard to imagine any other player, save for maybe the punter, getting a send-off nearly that chilly. Mark it off as another peril of the profession for kickers, who face as much pressure as anyone in the sport -- and seem to get about a quarter of the respect.

"Kickers, we can be scapegoats -- as hero or goat of the game -- and so we're easy targets," former NFL kicker John Carney said in a phone call this week. "Which is OK -- that's what we sign up for. We sign up for that position, a very unique position in professional sports. We may have only one or two opportunities to do your thing during the course of the game where you can change the outcome of the game, and we understand the ramifications of what we do and the opportunities of what we do."

This is fair -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't suck. If you're a quarterback, rookie growing pains are tolerated. Expected, even. Jets rookie Sam Darnold showed how green he was in the final possessions of his team's grisly Thursday night loss to the Browns, but Long Island would go up in flames if Gang Green released their wonderboy on Friday.

That mindset does not apply when it comes to kickers. There is no such thing as a development curve. If you don't hit the ground running, you hit the unemployment line.

Even worse, a rough afternoon can brand you with a scarlet letter that can be difficult to shake. Roberto Aguayo, a 2016 second-round pick (yes, really) who flamed out in Tampa and is still out of work, is one example. Zane Gonzalez, who got fired after leaving eight points on the field last week for the Browns, might struggle to find an employer who can look past that ugly entry on his resume.

Carney knows what it's like to face adversity at the game's most-maligned position. He kicked over parts of four decades, made two Pro Bowls and currently sits fifth on the NFL's all-time scoring list. But 15 years ago, a low moment threatened to bring his career to an ignominious close.

It happened in Week 16 of the 2003 season. Carney was a member of the Saints, who were fighting for their playoff lives in a road game against the Jaguars. New Orleans was down seven points with seconds to play and deep in their own territory when a desperation final play that included three lateral passes resulted in a miracle touchdown as time expired. All Carney had to do to force overtime was convert the PAT -- and he pushed the kick wide right:

The game is documented in a Wikipedia entry titled the "River City Relay." Carney is the grim footnote.

"That was a tough one to digest," he said. "It made me review my prep, my mindset."

That offseason, Carney researched the careers of some of the game's greatest kickers and found that, in almost every case, they too had faced a moment of infamy. The realization steadied the veteran, who survived the gaffe and played another seven years in the league.

"Am I alone? Am I terrible?" Carney remembered thinking. "Should I just hang the cleats up right now and walk off into obscurity? Or do I want to strap it up again and prove to myself and prove to a lot of other people, critics, coaches, media, whoever it was that, hey, I'm a pretty good placekicker and I'm going to continue to prove that and go back to work and learn from it."

Perhaps Daniel Carlson and Zane Gonzalez are in that place right now. If they're lucky, they'll reach their moment of clarity. As a kicker, you celebrate success with teammates, but failure is often a kind of solitary confinement.

"I don't feel bad for the kickers, I don't," former running back Reggie Bush said this week on the Around The NFL Twitter Show. "Because you have one job -- literally."

Bush shares the opinion of a lot of current and former players -- and even more fans. If you want proof, go dig into Zane Gonzalez's Twitter mentions this week. Any Zane Gonzalez, really. None of that feels fair -- but it's just part of the gig.

If you don't have the stomach, the leg doesn't matter.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. Send him questions for his next mailbag using the hashtag #DotComMailbag.

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