They did not know what they had in him with a week to go in the preseason, either. By that time the Cowboys had five kickers on the roster: David Buehler, who held the kicking job in 2010, Bailey, Shayne Graham, Kai Forbath, an undrafted free agent like Bailey but injured, and veteran Dave Rayner.
Dan Bailey has made 88 of 98 field goal attempts in his three seasons.
The Cowboys missed three out of four field goal attempts in the final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins; one from Buehler and two from Rayner.
By not kicking that night, Bailey elevated himself.
About to enter his fourth season, the Cowboys rewarded Bailey last week with a seven-year, $22.5 million deal that makes him among the top 10 highest-paid kickers in the NFL. And for those believing the Cowboys made more of a mess of their salary cap with the signing, Bailey’s cap number in 2014 is less than what it would have been if they had given him the second-round tender as a restricted free agent.
“That was a huge advantage looking back at it now, to go up against guys like Shayne and they brought in Dave Rayner, guys that have been kicking in the league a while and been real successful,” Bailey said. “At the time, I was just trying to keep my head down and do my own things. I think it was invaluable to get that competition early on to nail down the job.”
It taught Bailey that every kick is a new chance. A previous make does not guarantee success. A previous miss does not guarantee failure.
Bailey has made 89 of 98 field goal attempts in his career. He has missed just two kicks in each of the last two seasons. The pressure of winning the job out of a lockout as an undrafted rookie helped prepare Bailey for end-of-game moments. His eight game-winning kicks in three seasons are a franchise record.
“I don’t think it changes too much,” Bailey said of any added pressure because of the contract. “You’re only as good as your last kick. That’s the nature of the league. You have to bring your ‘A’ game every day to practice, to the game, even off the field. You’ve got to do the right things. I don’t think it’ll have too much of an impact. I think I take pride on being mentally strong enough to put that on the back burner and focus on the task at hand.”
Bailey’s leg strength was a question when he arrived, but he had a career-high 52 touchbacks in 2013 after just 54 in his first two seasons. He also made 6 of 7 attempts from 50 yards or more after making only 5 of 9 tries in his first two years from 50 yards or more.
“A lot of it had to do with just improving my leg strength and explosiveness, that stuff I did in the offseason, but just as much as that it was just a mentality,” Bailey said. “We practice a lot of those in camp and in practice and even in the offseason. Just getting back there and kicking long field goals, it was creating more of a comfort level for myself to know those kicks do come up in games.”
For the first time in his career, Bailey will not have Chris Boniol as a kicking coach. Boniol and the Cowboys agreed to part ways in the offseason, leaving Bailey and punter Chris Jones to improve without the watchful eye of an NFL veteran.
“He was a great asset to have,” Bailey said. “He was a guy I looked up to because he’d been literally in the same shoes I’ve been in.”