EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Here in St. Louis, legendary baseball player and hometown boy Yogi Berra once said "Half the game is 90 percent mental." For Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, you can probably remove the word half and you have a good idea of what his philosophy on his job is.
"I mean, it’s all mental," Zuerlein said after a recent special teams practice. "I need to be better mentally. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is being sharper mentally, knowing if the conditions are not ideal or it’s not good, don’t worry about it. Just worry about kicking the ball and then if you do miss, everyone misses, let it go instead of dwelling on it. I can just tell you, sometimes I dwell on it too long and I need to let it go and focus on the next kick. So mentally that’s a big thing I’m going to try to work on going into this next season."
As kickers go, Zuerlein has been alternately dazzling and maddening in his first three NFL seasons.
As a rookie, he wowed with his ability to connect from 60-plus yards and subsequently was the subject of a lengthy discussion about whether his nickname should be "The Leg" or "Legatron."
But Zuerlein also has had his share of misfires, looking particularly vulnerable when field conditions aren't ideal. Zuerlein has missed five field goals inside of 40 yards in his first three seasons, with all of those misses coming on grass surfaces. He had his two worst games of 2014 on the grass at Kansas City and Washington.
In Kansas City, Zuerlein missed a 38-yard field goal and mis-hit a kickoff that led to a 99-yard return for a touchdown by Knile Davis. Against the Redskins, Zuerlein missed an extra point and field goal attempts of 28 and 38 yards. Before that, he'd never missed an extra point or a field goal inside of 30 yards.
The field conditions, especially on a notoriously sloppy track in Washington, surely had something to do with the misses, but Zuerlein openly acknowledges that he could and should do a better job of bouncing back after a miss.
"It’s more just being confident in yourself and your abilities instead of worrying about what happened or what the conditions are," Zuerlein said. "So that’s really what it’s all about. In warmups, if you aren’t hitting the ball well, having the confidence to know that when you go out there, you have the ability, you are going to do it, it will go in. Instead of being like ‘Oh, I don’t know, from this spot in warmups I wasn’t hitting the ball well.’ It’s going out and being like, ‘Yep, I’m going to do it, it’s going to happen, I’m going to make it.’ It’s all about having confidence."
This offseason, Zuerlein has taken the steps he believes necessary to ensure that confidence is there when he needs it. He got away for a little bit and relaxed before coming back a bit earlier to resume kicking. He also spent more time in the weight room, looking to get a little bit stronger. When camp began, Zuerlein wanted to be able to fine tune his style rather than trying to play catchup.
"We kept it pretty limited for a couple of months until we got into April, we started to ramp it up," special teams coach John Fassel said. "We tweaked very little on their technique because I think they’re pretty darn good, so we didn’t mess with them too much. They’re going into their fourth year, so honing their steps, their drops, their feet. They’ll be better, too.”
How much better Zuerlein is could go a long way in determining his future with the club. With Zuerlein scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, the Rams have shown interest in bringing him back but might want to see how the season goes before finalizing anything.
For his part, Zuerlein seems well aware that if he produces, the contract issue will take care of itself.
"I haven’t thought anything about contracts," Zuerlein said. "I have to play well for that to even be a consideration. Really, all I’ve been focused on is kicking and just trying to put together a complete season. I’ve had good games and then I’ve had games that haven’t been so great. I don’t think I’ve really shown what my true abilities are in these three years. I feel I can play way better than I have. Really, that’s my goal: To try to put together a complete season and really show the coaching staff, myself, the fans, what I can do."