One morning earlier in training camp, the Eagles had set up a large chalkboard outside the gate to their practice fields at the NovaCare Complex. The board invited those season-ticket holders in attendance to write down their favorite moments involving the team. In the top right corner of the board, someone had written two words: DOUBLE DOINK. When Jake Elliott heard about this Tuesday, he recoiled.
“Oh, man,” he said.
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Everyone knows the reference by now: the 43-yard field-goal attempt by the Bears’ Cody Parkey near the end of the Eagles’ 16-15 wild-card victory last January, the miss that grazed the finger of defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, thudded off the left upright, and bounced off the goal post. For fans here, it’s a fond memory. For Bears fans, it remains a nightmare. For Elliott, it’s tinged with sympathy for a member of his small fraternity.
“You see that happen, and you’re ecstatic that you’re moving on, but you feel that pain,” he said after the Eagles practiced Tuesday. “You know that any kicker can go through that. You know that any kicker probably will go through that at some point or another. Just the way it happened, it was unfortunate. It was the way the season kind of went for him. Unfortunate things happened, a lot of misses where he was clearly hitting the ball well and it was hitting the pole. They just weren’t working out. Obviously, it’s tough. The city kind of turns on you. It’s difficult.”
In the weeks after that game, Elliott began texting and chatting with Parkey, asking him how he was holding up, without having met him in person. But they already had connections. A Pro Bowl selection for the Eagles in 2014, Parkey went to Auburn, as did Elliott’s fiancée and Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson, one of Elliott’s closest friends. As bad as Elliott felt, though, he couldn’t fully empathize with Parkey, couldn’t put himself in Parkey’s shoes, because over his two seasons with the Eagles, Elliott has not experienced what Parkey has. He has not missed a kick that cost his team a game.
If anything, Elliott has earned the benefit of the doubt because he has performed so well in the clutch, particularly in 2017, his rookie season. He boomed that 61-yarder at the buzzer to beat the Giants. He kicked four field goals, each 40 yards or more, to beat the Chargers. He has made all eight of his postseason field-goal attempts, including that 46-yarder late in Super Bowl LII to push the Eagles’ lead to eight points and allow everyone in Philadelphia to take a deep, cleansing breath.
Still, he understands: But for the grace of God, I could be Cody. This is the way all specialists in the NFL think. It binds them together. On the Tuesday before Super Bowl LII, for instance, the Eagles’ specialists – Elliott, then-punter/holder Donnie Jones, and long snapper Rick Lovato – went out to dinner with the Patriots’ specialists: kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter/holder Ryan Allen, and long snapper Joe Cardona. Sure enough, when Cardona fired an errant snap back to Allen early in the second quarter, leading Gostkowski to miss a 26-yard field goal, Lovato looked at Cardona and saw himself.
“As specialists, you can definitely call us head cases because the job is literally to be perfect on every single thing you do,” Lovato said. “Everyone’s watching you. ‘You have to make this. You’re just a kicker. You’d better make this.’ That’s the type of thing we deal with every day, and that’s why we have to treat it as professionals. You try to completely eliminate the room for error. If you keep remembering that bad play, it’s going to stick with you forever.”
That’s why, whenever they’re practicing – the three of them, Elliott and Lovato and Cameron Johnston, often by themselves on a separate field – Lovato takes care to keep their banter and conversation as light as he can.
“Jake likes to stay a little bit quieter,” he said. “He likes to focus on what he’s doing. We’re not going to talk back and forth. Our job is to stay as calm as possible. Our mental state is literally what decides us being successful or unsuccessful. Some of these guys, it’s 50-50 physical and mental, whereas ours is 90 percent mental. If something’s going wrong, we’re like, ‘Shake it off. Let’s go.’ No one’s going to tell Jake, ‘Oh, you’ve got to kick it this way. Your plant foot was off.’”
In the delicate world of placekicking, talking about a mistake might only will it into existence, and Elliott doesn’t want such thoughts creeping into his mind. He watches videos of the best kicks of his career, from high school, from college, from the NFL, then re-visualizes them, trying to block out the doubts and bad thoughts. So far, it has worked.
“But the reality is you never know,” he said. “You could get unlucky, hit a really good ball, and unfortunately it just doesn’t work out. That’s the nature of the business. I don’t think about it so much, but you see it happen to guys who are great kickers. I mean, Cody was a Pro Bowl kicker.”