Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lions' Hanson Still Kicking After All These Years

It’s fitting, really, that the Detroit Lions, lovers of tumult for decades, should have stability at a position that doesn’t even really qualify as a football player.

Since Jimmy Carter was president, the Lions have employed two full-time place kickers. Two.

Eddie Murray arrived as a rookie in 1980, and 12 years later, Murray was usurped by Jason Hanson, a rookie from Washington State.

Today, Hanson is 42 years old and is about to begin his 21st season of sidewinding his right leg toward an oblong pigskin for the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

Not that he’s a football player, any more than Henny Youngman was a violinist or Elvis Presley was an actor.

Hanson isn’t a football player, but in twisted irony that proves God has a sense of humor, he has been the most consistent of anyone wearing a Lions uniform since first suiting up in Chicago back in September 1992.

You want proof that Hanson isn’t a football player? Just look at his face.

With the exception of a hairline that has retreated more than the Italian Army, Hanson looks pretty much now as he did when he was a rookie 20 years ago.

A real football player, had he been able to survive in the NFL for two decades, would have facial skin as tough as a dime steak, a beard like sandpaper and would creak when he walks. He’d have more concussions than teeth.

Yet there Hanson is during Lions games and practices in his football costume, holding his helmet absently and sighing, acting like an adolescent bored at his grandmother’s house, and whether you choose to believe it or not, he’s a paid NFL player.

Hanson is not only not a football player; he’s an exception to the rule.

Few kickers in league history have enjoyed the job security that Hanson has since 1992 with the Lions.

More times than you can count, the shelf life of an NFL kicker is shorter than a gallon of milk. It’s the ultimate what have you done for me lately? job in sports. Kickers make hockey goalies look as entrenched as Supreme Court Justices.

A kicker can find himself in several training camps—in one month. He can be signed on a Thursday, flown in on a Friday, kicking in a game on Sunday and, if the wind doesn’t go his way or the laces aren’t spun just right or the snap is a little low, can be back in his hometown on Monday night, jobless yet again.

Have leg, will travel.

But not Jason Hanson.

Hanson not only has been the Lions’ kicker since 1992, he hasn’t had any serious competition for his job since then. The guys who have kicked in Hanson’s stead have done so only because injury has necessitated the Lions bringing in an understudy.

Even when Dave Rayner kicked for the Lions in 2010 and did a fine job filling in for the injured Hanson, who was then 40 years old, there wasn’t really any serious threat to Hanson’s job.

Usually, when the Lions have brought in a kicker during training camp, that guy’s job amounted to little more than giving Hanson a fellow kicker with whom to talk. By the end of camp, the other guy was sent packing, his chances of unseating Hanson about as good as you hitting the lotto.

It’s a great gig Hanson has had since 1992, so it’s no wonder that he’s in no hurry to give it up.

"I'm working so that my goal is, if I'm going to play, to show up and have them be like, 'He's the same',” Hanson told the Free Press’s Carlos Monarrez this week. “And if ever that day comes where it's not, then maybe I'll be fishing in the fall. But it's not going to be this year. And that's always just been my goal, to make sure I can still kick like I always have."

Let’s be clear—Hanson’s job security hasn’t been charity by the Lions. Kickers don’t stay in the league for 21 years, much less for the same team, unless they can kick the stuffing out of the football, with accuracy. Hanson has earned his keep.

And he has a message for those who think his leg has lost too much of its thump.

"I still have the distance we need, I think,” he told Monarrez. “(My length) won't limit us in any way. I can still hit the long ball when we need it."

He hit it last year, when Hanson connected on 5-of-7 from 50-plus yards, a 71.4 accuracy rating that put him in the top 10 in the league.

The problem with Hanson has been that there’s been too much Hanson.

Actually, you don’t mind seeing Hanson trotting onto the field, except that it’s too often been to kick field goals instead of extra points. That changed dramatically in 2011, when the Lions’ Silver Bullet offense emerged as one of the most lethal in the league.

Hanson kicked a lot of extra points last season—54 of them, by far a season high for him. It was the Year of the Anomaly.

Usually, Hanson has been the symbol of both the Lions’ ineptitude and his own success. The more the Lions offense has sputtered, the more we saw Hanson, kicking field goals. And the more he kicked field goals, the more we marveled at his consistency and cursed his teammates’ deficiencies.

For years during the Black Hole of the Matt Millen years, Lions fans looked at Hanson and saw the best player on the team—which is ironic because, as has been determined, he’s not a football player. No kicker truly is.

Now, with the offense finally coming around, maybe the Lions won’t need all those 50-plus-yard kicks. But Hanson doesn’t want to turn into some sort of short-yardage specialist, kicking style.

“I'd rather have them cut me than have them have me do that," he told Monarrez of being looked at as a short-distance kicker. "That's my attitude. If it came to that, I don't know, maybe I'd be like, 'Well, I can still kick under 45.' But I don't want any part of that.”

Spoken like a true football player—even if he isn’t one.

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