How did the Rams’ kicking crew spend their offseason?
Punter Johnny Hekker made a trick shot video with the folks at Dude Perfect. And kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein sat on his sofa for three months. We exaggerate only slightly.
Zuerlein took it easy by design at the request of special teams coordinator John Fassel.
Speaking of Zuerlein’s rookie season, Fassel said: “He started on fire, and then he kind of just – you know – (leveled off) at the end of the season.”
From the lead-up to his 2011 season at Missouri Western to his 2012 rookie season with St. Louis, Zuerlein basically kicked non-stop for a year and half. Fassel felt all that kicking caused him to wear down over the second half of last season.
“He came off an injury in college after his junior year,” Fassel said. “He rehabbed it and kicked his whole senior year in college, and right when his senior year ended he’s kicking at a (regional) combine in Detroit. I went and worked him out twice, six other teams went and worked him out privately. Then he had the OTAs, and then we had him here in the summer kicking.”
And then the season started. Zuerlein started out on fire, making the first 15 field goals of his pro career – a Rams franchise record. In Week 4 against Seattle, he made a 60-yard field to set another team record. It also was the longest field goal by a rookie in NFL history. But after that opening salvo, Zuerlein made only eight of his final 16 kicks over the rest of the season.
Keep in mind, six of those eight misses were from 51 yards or more, so it’s not like he was missing chips shots. But Fassel and head coach Jeff Fisher had such confidence in Zuerlein that any time the Rams got close to midfield, they started thinking field goal.
“It just became so much that by November, December he was tired,” Fassel said. “So we gave him a lot of time off after the season to kind of freshen himself up, go back in the weight room. His strength has improved, so his ability and success later in the season should improve.”
So Fassel, in effect, wanted Zuerlein to sit on his couch and relax for a few months?
“Pretty much,” Fassel said, half-joking. “He stayed fit, but he stayed away from kicking for quite a while.”
When Fassel first instructed Zuerlein to take time off from kicking, he didn’t give the kicker an exact time frame. Zuerlein stayed in St. Louis basically the entire offseason so it was easy to stay in touch with Fassel.
“I would tell him how I was feeling, and we’d go from there,” Zuerlein said. “I would tell him how good I was feeling and he’d go from there. He would say, ‘OK, wait another couple weeks.’ ”
When all was said and done, Zuerlein didn’t kick for about three months. But truth be told, Zuerlein sometimes strayed from the plan.
“Well, (Fassel) doesn’t know it, but I’d sneak out here and tap a few,” Zuerlein said, grinning. “Nothing hard, but some light taps just to get the foot on the ball. Nothing strenuous.”
Near the end of the spring practice period in June, Zuerlein also had a supporting role in Hekker’s trick shot video as did long snapper Jake McQuaide.
Among Hekker’s trick shots:
• A punt of 40 yards or so into a basketball hoop fastened to a goal post in the Rams’ indoor practice facility.
• A behind-the-back punt (sailing backwards over Hekker’s head) into the basket.
• A 70-yard boot from the rooftop of Rams Park into a small plastic wading pool set up in the middle of the outdoor field complex.
“I was out here while they were filming it, and it took them a couple hours, and every single one you see is legit – no trick photography,” Fassel said. “The one off the roof 70 yards into the pool was ridiculous.”
The Rams’ marketing department reached out to Dude Perfect to film the video, which already has garnered 1.8 million hits on YouTube.
Fassel said it took 20 takes to execute some of the shots.
“It was a blast,” Hekker said. “Nothing’s Photoshopped. Every shot was actually made in the basket, so we had a good time.”
Zuerlein said Hekker actually landed a pair of 40-yard punts into the basket – back-to-back.
“They didn’t put it on the video,” Zuerlein said. “I think they might have thought that would be too unbelievable.”
Zuerlein contributed to the video by “sinking” a long field goal into the basket, and McQuaide launched a long snap through the hoop.
The fun and games are over now that the Rams are in camp, and Hekker is hoping to build off his strong rookie season.
“Main goal: Be consistent,” Hekker said. “I had some mishits that could have ended up hurting the team last year. Some of them did end up hurting the team. And a couple of miscues here and there.”
Hekker said all of those instances were learning experiences that he has stored in the memory banks.
“So that this season when I’m put in that situation, I’m not going to repeat the same mistakes,” Hekker said. “The returners in this league are dangerous, and they’re paid accordingly. So I gotta make sure I’m not letting ‘em re-sign big contracts for touchdown returns.”