Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hanson Proves Lions Can At Least Be Consistent At One Position

He showed up 18 years ago from Washington State University with his right leg and not much else. He didn't even have a name.

For his first few weeks in town, at Lions training camp, all we knew him as was "the kid who's replacing Eddie Murray."

Jason Something-or-Other.

HANSON, we were reminded by the Lions media liaisons.

Kickers in pro football have two kinds of lives, it seems: cameo, or Methuselah.

The 40-year-old kicker is far from an anomaly. If you can survive the first couple of years, you have a good shot at staying in the NFL for a couple of decades.

Morten Anderson, the pride of Michigan State, swatted footballs with his left foot with the reliability of the sunrise. He did it until he was 47 years old. He tried retiring a couple of times, but on each occasion he was asked back. On each occasion he said yes---because being a kicker in the NFL is a pretty good gig. It's like having a desk job for the Mafia.

Funny thing is, Anderson's 25-year career started this way: he twisted his ankle on his very first NFL kickoff, way back in 1982. Twisted his ankle on a kickoff?

You betcha. Twisted it good; he missed eight weeks.

He recovered, and kicked for a quarter century longer.

The Lions' Jason Hanson is 40. He's been losing his hair for years. Every training camp he shows up and his hairline has receded a couple centimeters. But he plays for the Lions, a franchise that has led the league in hair loss for its coaches and fan base for decades. So what do you expect?

Besides, Hanson doesn't kick with his hair.

Hanson survived those first couple of seasons as Murray's replacement, and then we blinked and Hanson is entering his 19th NFL season. One more year and he qualifies for a gold watch.

The man he replaced, Murray, was thought to be old. Murray kicked for the Lions from 1980-91---12 seasons. Then the Lions thought he was losing his power on kickoffs and the field goal accuracy was waning. So they released him, having drafted the kid Hanson.

Murray, by the way, left the Lions and kicked for nine more seasons, retiring in 2000 as a 44-year-old. Eddie even won a Super Bowl, with the 1993 Cowboys. Just like Errol Mann.

Errol Mann---there's a name from the past. Mann was cut by the Lions in 1975 after kicking for them for years and he ended up with the 1976 Oakland Raiders---and Mann won a Super Bowl with them.

Funny how players win Super Bowls before and after playing for the Lions, but not while.

So it's another training camp and Hanson is again entrenched as the Lions kicker, despite nursing an injury to his left, non-kicking leg. Last summer in camp he nursed an injury to his right, kicking leg.

Yet Hanson isn't like some NFL players, who lose their jobs due to injury. Hanson is the Lions kicker even when he can't kick. He's had more job security than a Supreme Court Justice.

Which means Hanson will likely retire from pro football as a Lion. Not that there haven't been some grumblings the past couple of seasons, when Hanson has had the audacity to actually, you know, miss a field goal attempt.

He missed several last year, but he didn't miss them by much. It wasn't like he was hooking them like a bad tee shot. Still, the footballs Hanson kicked last season didn't find their way through the uprights and above the crossbar with the success rate we've been used to seeing from No. 4. The injury he suffered in training camp was presumed to be the culprit.

No matter. Hanson is back, as usual, and he's the kicker, despite undergoing surgery earlier this month on his left leg.

The Lions brought in someone named Aaron Pettrey this year to handle kicking duties while Hanson recuperates. The Lions have brought in a number of kickers over the years, usually rookie free agents. They've done so as if they were trying to satisfy some sort of NFL Equal Opportunity Employer provision.

"Each team shall have two kickers in training camp."

Pettrey's chances of being the Lions kicker are off the board. Vegas wouldn't touch it. He's only with the Lions because they have to have someone kick during the exhibition games.

Every young kicker the Lions have invited to camp has come with the primary objective of hooking on with another NFL team. Hanson's job has been as untouchable as Elliott Ness.

But a good, reliable kicker is hard to find---like a good, honest car mechanic. And when you find one, you don't let him go. You don't even look around for alternatives, almost for fear of jinxing what you have.

Murray became vilified in Detroit for missing the biggest kick of his career---the 1983 playoff game in San Francisco, when his 43-yarder at the final gun started wide right and stayed wide right. Had he connected, the Lions would have advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

Murray kicked for the Lions for eight more seasons, but never did he truly live down that miss against the 49ers.

Hanson hasn't been in such a monumental situation in his 18 years with the Lions, mainly because the past nine of those have been spent in football purgatory.

Hanson would probably give his non-kicking leg to be in a position to miss a big kick.

But he shows up every year, on time, and with a smile on his face. Hanson has been through seven head coaches, a slew of special teams coaches, and more losses than you can shake a stick at. But he's a Lion, always will be, and has never shown an inclination to jump ship.

He's 40 years old and it's becoming less and less possible to imagine any other skinny guy swinging his leg at held footballs in a Lions uniform.

Hanson has been a morsel of comfort food for a fan base that has had to choke down hospital grade cuisine for the past nine years.

But is the end near? Nobody can kick forever---not even Morten Anderson or Jan Stenerud or John Kasay---who's still doing it for the Carolina Panthers, two months shy of his 41st birthday, the only kicker the Panthers franchise has ever employed.

All I know is that Hanson, just two seasons ago at age 38, went 21-for-22 in field goal attempts, including making a 56-yarder. Over his 18 seasons, he's connected at a success rate of 81.8.

I have a hunch that last year's 21-for-28 was an aberration, and that we'll see a reliable, accurate Hanson once again in 2010. And we may see that for several more years.

Jason Hanson just has to keep kicking for the Lions. I was married one week after his first game with the team in 1992. He's the only Lions kicker my marriage has ever known.

If he retires, I'll have to start treating Mrs. Eno a whole lot nicer.

No comments: