On September 1st, a mere 8 days before Dallas’ season opener in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys released the 2nd most accurate kicker in NFL history, Dan Bailey. In a matter of hours, the fan base went from shock and confusion to utter fury. How could Dallas send away another “all time” leader for their franchise and fan favorite so soon? Bailey’s release marked the third such move in one offseason for the Cowboys. For many, the decision screamed of madness. And to cut Dan for a CFL journeyman, no less? Utter insanity.
During his time in Dallas, Dan Bailey connected on better than 88% of his field goal attempts, leading the team in scoring in every season as he all but transformed himself into the personification of “automatic.” What’s more, he’s the only kicker in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl (2015). Sure, he missed five field goals and a pair of PATs late in the season last year, but even that can be explained away by a groin injury for most. Prior to that, Bailey was the most accurate kicker in league history -occasionally trading the mantle back and forth with Baltimore Ravens kicker, Justin Tucker. So what logic could Dallas possibly have for releasing one of the two best kickers of all time in favor of a 28-year-old, Brett Maher, a Nebraska Cornhusker product who had bounced around the Canadian Football League and never attempted a regular season NFL kick?
For the most part, Maher flew under the radar because, well, Dan Bailey is Dan Bailey. Or at least that was the belief at the time.
As with most decisions, a variety of factors played a role in the decision. First and foremost was Maher’s performance throughout training camp.
For the most part, Maher flew under the radar because, well, Dan Bailey is Dan Bailey. Or at least that was the belief at the time. Despite the fact that Bailey only attempted a single kick in the preseason, the assumption was that Maher was nothing more than a “camp body” intended to preserve Bailey for the regular season. What people outside of the organization didn’t see, however, was that Maher was not only holding his own with Bailey throughout camp but at times even out-kicked the Pro Bowler. Just this week, Head Coach Jason Garrett said the coaching staff itself didn’t fully appreciate Maher’s camp efforts until they began to review the kicking charts and track his accuracy from a variety of distances.
Then, of course, there was the money factor. Prior to his release, Dan Bailey was the NFL’s highest paid kicker, and while he’d obviously earned that over the course of a rock-solid career, the dip in his accuracy the past two seasons and rise of nagging injuries prompted the front office to take a closer look and evaluate whether he was still worth every dollar of that $3.4 million he was set to make this season. In the end, Dallas parted ways with Bailey, placing its trust in relative “no-name” Brett Maher, saving itself close to $3M in the process. Dallas’ cap situation wasn’t exactly hurting for relief, but flexibility is flexibility.
In the opener, with Dallas trailing by 10 with 2:55 left in the third quarter, Maher lined up for his first regular season kick in the NFL. With the ball spotted on the Carolina 29, Maher lined up on the right hash mark, ready to attempt a 47 yard field goal. The snap was clean; the hold was perfect. Maher simply hooked it to the right. A collective groan rolled across Cowboys Nation. This is the guy Dallas cut Dan Bailey for? It took all of one kick to see this was a bad decision? At the time, it was an impossible thought to ignore -even with it being just one kick. After all, Dan Bailey is a career 53/60 from 40-49 yards (88.3%).
You know it’s South America if he misses. We’re going to have to leave.
Rather than let that miss, or the heckling fans angry with him simply for not being Dan Bailey, affect him, Maher kept his head down and continued to work, quietly racking up a nice streak of seven straight makes. But it wouldn’t be long before he found himself in a high-pressure situation. On the final play of Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, Maher found himself with the game in his hands and all the eyes of Cowboys Nation focused solely on him. Despite being 2 for 2 on the day going into the final snap, all that would matter is what Maher did next. It was the kind of moment Dan Bailey built his brand on, the kind of moment Brett Maher had yet to face in the NFL.
With the Cowboys trailing 24-23 with just 3 seconds remaining on the clock, Brett Maher lined from 38 yards. Up in the owner’s booth, Stephen Jones punched Jerry on the arm. “You know it’s South America if he misses. We’re going to have to leave.”
The ball was snapped, and Brett put it right through the uprights.
As Dak Prescott pumped his fist and the crowd roared, Jerry Jones breathed a visible sigh of relief. Brett Maher had, at least for the moment, proven the Cowboys had made the right decision in releasing Dan Bailey. Whether or not that continues throughout the season remains to be seen. But this past Sunday, one of Dallas’ most scrutinized players became, for the moment, a hero.