If only Lance Ball could have found the umpire faster, Matt Prater might just have written his name in the record books.
The Denver Broncos had crossed midfield and Prater was all set to try a 67-yard field goal right before halftime in their 30-23 win over San Diego, but the clock ran out before the umpire could spot the ball for Peyton Manning to spike.
Oh well, maybe next time.
"We've got to do a better job as coaches practicing that under pressure," coach John Fox said.
After all, the men who share the NFL record for longest field goal at 63 yards — David Akers, Jason Elam, Tom Dempsey and Sebastian Janikowski — all say the strong-legged Prater has the best chance to break the mark, especially in Denver's thin air.
"He's a weapon," Fox said. "I mean, he's a weapon on kickoffs. He's a weapon as far as field goal range. Shoot, we were trying to set him up before half and we made a boo-boo not getting the ball spiked because we didn't get it to the officials fast enough. If we'd have gotten to the 50, we'd have tried it, especially at our place."
They reached the Chargers 49 when Ball caught an 11-yard pass from Manning. But the Broncos had no timeouts remaining and the first half ended, denying Prater a shot at history.
Earlier in the game, Prater had a rare long-range misfire, staring in disbelief along with his teammates when his attempt from 55 yards out clanked off the left upright near the yellow flag that flies atop the 30-foot-high goal posts.
It was just his fifth miss in 20 career attempts from 50 yards or more, and that dropped him behind Chicago's Robbie Gould (76.5 percent) as the most accurate long-range field goal kicker in NFL history.
Prater is an anomaly among NFL players who make a living with their legs: the farther from the goal posts, the better he gets.
He makes 93 percent of his attempts from 39 yards and in but just 61 percent from 40-49 yards (22 of 36), then 75 percent from 50-plus.
Would the Broncos ever consider taking a delay of game penalty if he's lining up for, say, a 46-yarder, so that they move back into his comfort zone?
"No," Fox said emphatically. "I mean, I'm still of the belief that closer's better. We're not going out of our way to back him up, for sure."
That's a relief to Prater.
"They're all the same kick," he said. "For some reason, I've been lucky enough to make most of the 50-yarders, but they're all the same kick."
But with more pressure and less room for error.
Studies have shown that, in general, field goal accuracy starts to dip at 43 yards. Gould, Prater, Tony Zendejas, Rob Bironas and Jeff Wilkins — in that order — have the highest 50-yard field goal percentage since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with a minimum of 10 attempts. For those rare kickers such as them, that success rate starts to rise once they get shots from really far away.
"I don't know why," Prater said with a shrug. "I don't try to over-think it."
Broncos special teams coach Jeff Rodgers suggested a big part of Prater's success from long distance is his mindset.
"I'd say this: He loves it and he embraces that challenge and I think it goes back to having success in those situations that leads you to have confidence the next time it comes up," Rodgers said.
Last year, Prater became the first kicker since Chris Jacke in 1998 to kick a winning field goal on the final play in three straight games. One of them was from 51 yards, against Chicago in overtime, which came after he nailed a 59-yarder at the end of regulation to tie it.
Prater also had a 52-yarder to beat Miami in overtime last season, making him one of just three kickers in league history with at least four game-winning field goals in one season that came in overtime or as time expired in regulation. The others are Elam (2007) and Dan Bailey (2011).
"Confidence is there," Prater said. "But you've got to treat them all the same."
Last week, Prater had a 19-yard field goal, his first attempt ever from inside 20 yards, and he kicked it like he did his 55-yarder.
Prater said he'd actually prefer a lot more of those chip shots than the long ones, where the slightest of variations is magnified and can send the football flying just outside the goal posts.
"The closer you are, the higher the percentage should be of making the kick," he said. "So, any time you have a short field goal, that's good. Of course, I'd be happy just kicking extra points all day, too."
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