Second-guessers will be ready to pounce when Brett Maher takes the field for the Cowboys to attempt the first regular-season kick of his NFL career.
If he misses, the refrain from Dallas fans figures to be something along the lines of, “Dan Bailey woulda made it.”
The Cowboys factored that into their surprising decision to release the second-most accurate kicker in league history because of Bailey’s struggles after an injury last season and the relatively large salary for his position.
They replaced him with a 28-year-old training camp journeyman with four years of CFL experience in Maher, who wasn’t in the locker room when it was open to reporters Tuesday.
“We recognize he has not made a kick in the National Football League,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We understand what Dan Bailey has done in the National Football League, so that makes the decision that much more difficult. We talked about it, went back and forth on it, we challenged each other on it.”
The club’s career leader with 186 field goals, Bailey has made 88.2 per cent of his attempts in seven seasons, second to Baltimore’s Justin Tucker (90.2).
Bailey was the most accurate in NFL history among kickers with at least 100 attempts when he injured his right groin at San Francisco last season and missed four games. Bailey was 8 of 13 after coming back and finished at a career-low 75 per cent.
The enduring image for Garrett was Bailey shanking a 23-yard attempt in the final seconds of a meaningless finale at Philadelphia after the Cowboys put the ball in the middle of the field trying to take a 9-0 lead in the eventual 6-0 win.
While Bailey had a couple of troublesome days in camp, the 30-year-old was solid overall. And Maher’s camp impressed the coaches, capped by a 57-yard field goal in the preseason finale at Houston.
“I think we got real comfortable with Maher and the way he was kicking and the off-season he had,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on his radio show Tuesday. “We really felt that we could get the same strategy, same impact that a kicker like Bailey gives us.”
The Cowboys are saving $3.4 million under the salary cap by cutting Bailey. Maher will make just $480,000. The financial component was less about the present and more about the future of having to pay the likes of quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, if Dallas gets to that day with those cornerstones.
“You never have enough of it,” Jones said of clearing cap space. “You can take a look at our roster as young as it is, but still we have some pretty hefty situations coming up regarding cap. Anybody planning ahead and you have to, you’ve already got a spot for that room.”
Garrett loses a kicker he trusts, with questions about the coach’s future likely to follow if the Cowboys miss the playoffs again. They’ve reached the post-season twice in his seven full seasons, with one playoff win.
“We’re on board with all the decisions,” Garrett said. “We make organizational decisions. We talk about it every day, talk about how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and all the different factors that go into the decisions and we work through it.”
This decision will be easy to measure.