Shaun Suisham, who is off to a record start with the Steelers, never intended to be a kicker in the National Football League. It was not his plan to be the league’s most accurate kicker since the final weeks of the 2011 season or the player who could end up being part of one of the more significant, in not dubious, achievements in franchise history.
When he was in high school growing up in southern Canada, Suisham always thought he was going to be an electrician.
“That was the plan,” Suisham said.
Instead, he is lighting up scoreboards in the NFL.
Picked off the unemployment line by the Steelers halfway through the 2010 season, Suisham is quickly becoming one of the best and most dependable kickers in team history. He has converted nearly 87 percent of his field goals since joining the Steelers and has made his first 14 attempts this season, the first time he has done that in his eight-year career.
After kicking four field goals in last Sunday’s 19-16 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, including the winning 42-yarder as time expired, Suisham has made 41 of his past 42 attempts inside the 50, dating to the 2011 season.
What’s more, in his past 24 games, dating to the final two weeks of 2011, Suisham has hit 46 of his past 50 attempts overall, a 92 percent conversion rate that is the best among NFL kickers during that period.
Suisham, though, is just part of what’s happening in the league.
Four other kickers — Nick Folk of the New York Jets (16 of 16), Greg Zuerlein of the St. Louis Rams (11 of 11), Carolina’s Graham Gano (10 of 10) and Jacksonville’s Josh Scobee (9 of 9) — have not missed a field-goal attempt this season, either. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the current league-wide conversion rate of 86.5 percent would be the highest in a season in which there were at least 50 attempts.
“I can’t say kickers are better,” Suisham said. “Statistically, it seems like percentages are up. But I know I’ve got a lot of guys in this league that are doing a really nice job. There are a lot of really talented guys.”
And it appears NFL teams are relying on them more than ever, including the Steelers.
But that might not always be a good thing.
“We always count on [Suisham] to make them, but we can’t keep relying on that,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got to score seven points. That’s frustrating as a quarterback and as an offense because when we get down there we know what we want to do and what our goal is. We have to find a way to get it in the end zone.”
Indeed, the Steelers have not done a good job of that, partly because they haven’t been in the red zone — inside the 20 — too many times.
Only five teams have made fewer trips inside the red zone than the Steelers (16). And they have scored only six touchdowns on those 16 opportunities, a 37.5 conversion percent that ranks next to last in the league, behind only Jacksonville. One of those touchdowns came against the Ravens on Heath Miller’s 3-yard catch on a shovel pass.
Part of the reason the Steelers have had so few opportunities is because of field position. Only two of their 67 drives this season have started across the 50, forcing the offense to navigate longer fields. That’s what happens when the defense has a league-low two takeaways, punter Zoltan Mesko has the second-worst average in the NFL (42.4), and the longest kick return of any kind is 44 yards.
That’s where Suisham has bailed them out.
But, while having a dependable kicker can be a luxury for many teams, it can also be a crutch.
After six games, Suisham has more field goals (14) than the Steelers have scored touchdowns (9). In their 81-year history, the Steelers have never had a season in which they had more field goals than touchdowns.
The only time they came close was in 1940, when they had six field goals and six touchdowns; and in 1998, when they finished the season with the same number of field goals (26) as touchdowns (26).
To be sure, it is difficult to determine if teams have become more reliant on their kickers or if the number of field goals is merely a byproduct of an offense that can’t finish drives. But, as the Steelers close in on the halfway point of the 2013 season, the trend is disturbingly alarming, even though there is still plenty of time for the numbers to flip-flop.
Still, Suisham will go down as one of the best mid-season pickups in franchise history. In a fraternity known for flighty characters, Suisham refers himself to a “minimalist” who doesn’t worry about anything other than making a kick.
“It’s his demeanor,” said long-snapper Greg Warren. “Shaun is able to block out a lot of stuff. He’s able to focus solely on kicking, and he’s able to focus on the kick that is right now. He doesn’t worry about the last one, he doesn’t worry about the next one, he doesn’t worry about my job, he doesn’t worry about the holder, he doesn’t worry about the blocking.
“There are so many things he could worry about that he doesn’t focus on. He trusts his teammates and he trusts himself. It’s pretty remarkable how he’s able to approach it.”
Kicking wasn’t in the plan
When he was growing up in Wallaceburg, Ontario, a lumber and boating community in southern Canada, Suisham never even thought about playing football, much less having a successful career in the NFL.
He played hockey and soccer through high school and only started playing football because his uncle, a teacher and volunteer coach on the football team, persuaded him to do so. He was a wide receiver and safety and served as the kicker only because his team didn’t have one. Suisham said he never practiced kicking until he went to college on scholarship to Bowling Green.
And he never even intended to go to college.
“It wasn’t like football was a dream of mine and something I wanted to pursue,” Suisham said. “I planned on becoming an electrician. That was the plan.”
Because he didn’t intend to go to college, Suisham went to high school for a fifth year, even though he officially graduated after four years. In Canada, students are allowed to do that and take college-credited courses, like a prep school. They are also allowed to play sports the fifth year as long as they take at least two courses per term.
Suisham went for a fifth year because his senior season of football was wiped out by a teachers strike. But, after one term, Suisham decided he didn’t want to do that. He left school without telling anyone and took a job with a friend, Joe St. Croix, in a factory.
That lasted one day.
“It really wouldn’t have been a career-type move; I just thought it was the next natural step,” Suisham said. “We went there and worked for a day and we decided this wasn’t necessarily the thing for us. My uncle, who got me involved in football, convinced me to stick it out with football, so I continued to play. And the last three weeks of the year were really good. I hit some long field goals.”
Those three weeks ended up getting Suisham a scholarship to Bowling Green and, ultimately, a career in the NFL.
His first training camp out of college was with the Steelers in 2005, but they already had Jeff Reed. After he was cut, he was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys and spent parts of two seasons on the practice squad and active roster, making four of six field goals in two games.
When the Cowboys cut him in 2006, he was signed to the San Francisco 49ers practice squad and was released one week later. That’s when he was picked up by the Washington Redskins and united with special teams coach Danny Smith.
Suisham spent parts of four seasons with the Redskins, appearing in 49 games and converting 81 of 101 field-goal attempts (80.2 percent). But the Redskins released him after 12 games of the 2009 season, despite converting 18 of 21 field goals, and he spent two more games with the Cowboys.
But he didn’t kick again until the Steelers came calling in Week 9 of the 2010 season, when they decided to release Reed after he missed seven of his first 22 attempts that season.
Since then, Suisham has converted 79 of 91 field-goal attempts with the Steelers, or 86.8 percent.
“The course my life has taken is awesome and I’m so grateful for it,” Suisham said. “For me, personally, I got no other way to describe it, to be where I am right now, than that I feel extremely blessed. I’ve had a guiding hand the whole way. I certainly didn’t see this.”
Kickers better than ever
Are there too many field goals in the National Football League?
Some people think so, including players. And the problem might be the improved accuracy of the kickers.
Teams have become so accustomed to their kickers being nothing short of automatic that they often opt to take the sure three points rather than take a chance on scoring a touchdown.
For example, Minnesota’s Blair Walsh, who has missed just one attempt from beyond 50 yards (12 of 13) in 22 games, is so reliable that the Vikings often opt for a field goal because it is almost guaranteed he will provide at least three points. In less than two seasons, he has converted 44 of 49 field-goal attempts.
Two years ago, the St. Louis Rams relied so much on kicker Josh Brown, who had made 24 of 25 field-goal attempts, that even Brown acknowledged it’s not always a good way to win games.
“It’s good if you’re winning games,” Brown said. “It’s just a hard way to win in December, a hard way to win in the playoffs.”
Kickers, collectively, are better now than they ever were. They’re bigger, stronger and more athletically (even mechanically) inclined than predecessors such as Pete Gogolak, Garo Yepremian and Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Curiously, Stenerud probably wouldn’t even last long in today’s NFL because his career conversion rate is only 66.8 percent (373 of 558).
In 2011, NFL teams attempted a record 1,011 field goals, an average of about four attempts a game. This season, the number is slightly lower, about 3.8 attempts per game. And how far teams are willing to attempt field goals doesn’t seem to matter, either.
In the past 15 years, three kickers have tied Tom Dempsey’s record for longest field goal (63 yards), set in 1970 — Denver’s Jason Elam, Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski and San Francisco’s David Akers. Janikowski, whom the Steelers will face today, once persuaded his coach, Lane Kiffin, to let him try a 76-yard field goal.
As kickers have improved, the league has done its best to discourage teams from attempting field goals. In 1974, the NFL moved the goalposts to the back of the end zone, adding 10 yards to their attempts. In 1995, the league placed the ball at the spot of the kick rather than the line of scrimmage after a missed attempt. And, in 1999, the league introduced the new hard “K” ball that was to be used exclusively by punters and kickers.
The balls, inscribed with the letter K, are wrapped in plastic bags and sealed with an anti-tampering tape to ensure they can’t be doctored or softened before the game. They are delivered to the officials room 2½ hours before each game and given to the kickers and punters to use in warmups 45 minutes before kickoff. There are 12 “K” balls delivered to each game.
Needless to say, kickers aren’t “krazy” about the harder balls.
“They’re all waxy and hard,” Warren said. “It really makes a difference.”
Suisham probably hasn’t noticed.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.