Jets’ Folk boots his competition to the unemployment line

By on November 24, 2013

Nick Folk genuinely feels bad each time he goes home to deliver the news to his wife.

Honey, I won again.

He has sent six friends to the unemployment line in the past three years, proof of the cut-throat life of an NFL kicker, where job security is a foreign and foolish concept.

The Jets have tested Folk each of the past three offseasons by bringing in strong-footed thieves eager to pinch his job in the light of day: Nick Novak, Josh Brown, Derek Dimke, Brett Maher, Billy Cundiff and Dan Carpenter.

They came. They kicked. They lost.

“Nick’s been the last man standing,” says Cundiff.

Rex Ryan’s “Folk Hero” is arguably the team MVP through the first 10 games, and was perfect for two months before a wind-aided miss last week in Buffalo snapped a streak of 23 consecutive field goals. He’s already kicked three game-winning field goals of 40-plus yards to put the 5-5 Jets in the thick of the wild-card hunt entering Sunday’s road game against the Ravens.

Despite that success, Folk is permanently planted on the hot seat.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” says Folk. “I think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers might be the only ones that don’t have competition.”

Gloating isn’t a part of Folk’s DNA. His voice barely rises above a whisper when retracing the training camp/preseason battles he’s endured with the Jets. His confidence in himself never wavered even as the organization explored all options. Four of the “Folk Six” are thriving in the league today.

“If I perform at my best, then I know I’m going to be better,” says Folk. “It’s worked out for everyone.”

* * *

Nick Novak fires a text message to Folk every time his buddy bangs one through the uprights in clutch time this season.

“I feel like Nick’s a good-luck charm,” says Novak. “Every time I watch him kick a potential game-winner, he always nails it. So, I’m making sure I’m watching.”

More than two years after pushing Folk to the limits, Novak is thriving with the Chargers. He had just completed a season in kicking exile with the UFL’s Florida Tuskers when the Jets called him in February 2011.

Folk’s future with the Jets remained uncertain with the looming NFL lockout threatening to delay free agency. To some people in the organization, his game-winning field goal in the Jets’ wild-card win over the Colts was overshadowed by a mid-season four-game swoon in 2010 that included six missed field goals.

Novak, who had spent time with eight teams in six years, saw it at his chance to get back into the league. Novak and Folk, friends who trained together with kicking guru John Carney in San Diego in the offseasons, went kick-for-kick in training camp. They each drilled 62-yarders in one practice. Novak made 19 in a row during one memorable stretch in Cortland.

But Folk outlasted the challenger.

“He always rises to the a occasion,” says Novak. “He manages to kick at a high level and keep his job. That camp prepared us both for what was to come.”

Novak went back home to San Diego after the Jets released him. A week later, he sat at a burger joint and watched kicker Nate Kaeding on TV suffer a torn ACL trying to make a tackle on the season-opening kickoff. Novak signed with the Chargers a couple days later.

Novak, who made 90% of his field goals last year before nailing 20-of-23 (87%) through the first 10 games this season, has become one of the more reliable kickers in the league.

“Nick had a lot to do with that,” says Novak. “We pushed each other to kick at a high level.”

Folk’s work, however, was far from done.

* * *

Josh Brown apologized to Folk when he walked into the Jets’ training facility in May 2012. Shortly after the Rams cut Brown to make room for a guy known as Legatron (Greg Zuerlein), the Jets signed him in the summer to give Folk a run for his money.

“Sorry, man,” Brown told Folk. “It’s like the only team that called and I had to take it.”

Folk, who had made just 76% of his kicks the previous season, was the underdog this time. Then-special teams coach Mike Westhoff sounded every bit like a man who wanted Brown to win the competition.

“I would say in the beginning I did have the inside track,” says Brown, who has missed only twice for the Giants this season.

The Jets ratcheted up the intensity and volume of kicks for Brown and Folk, buddies who spent the previous winter together at the Carney camp, with around 100 kicks during the offseason evaluation period.

“We kicked entirely too much,” Brown said. “But it was a big decision there and they needed a lot of kicks. They wanted a lot of data.”

Folk held a slight edge through training camp, but it was still too close to call early in the preseason.

“It was very intense,” Brown said. “It came down to who’s going to miss first in the preseason. I was the first guy to miss. As soon as I missed, that was their cue: ‘Okay. End the competition.’ ”

Brown knew he was still capable of kicking in the league, but the question loomed at that stage of his career: Will somebody call?

He waited for 12 weeks before the Bengals turned to him after Mike Nugent’s injury late last season. Brown kicked a game-winning field goal three weeks later to send Cincinnati to its first back-to-back playoff appearance in 30 years.

Folk, meanwhile, plodded through 2012, wondering who would arrive in Florham Park in the offseason to try to take his job next.

Nick Folk runs off the field after kicking the game-winning field goal in the Jets' 30-28 win over Atlanta.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Nick Folk runs off the field after kicking the game-winning field goal in the Jets’ 30-28 win over Atlanta.

* * *

Derek Dimke and Brett Maher want what Folk already has: A chance to live the kicker’s dream of endless pressure.

Months after both had their cracks at unseating Folk, they juggle their NFL pursuits with real life.

Dimke, undrafted from Illinois in 2012, went back to his home in the Chicago suburbs to be a consulting executive for a law firm. He spent a grand total of one month with the Jets during offseason workouts before getting cut last May. He didn’t stuff his green-and-white jersey into his backpack as he left, but did learn from Folk during his brief stay.

“He deserves all the success that he’s having this year,” says Dimke. “He works harder than just about anybody I know. He pushes harder every day than he did the day before. That’s really something I took away from him and tried to apply in my own training.”

Dimke, who was in Lions camp in 2012 before the Jets gave him a shot, spends his mornings working out before heading to his firm’s Chicago headquarters before noon. Garrett Hartley’s struggles prompted the Saints to bring Dimke in for a workout last week. No deal. But he remains on their radar.

“There’s different pressure with every job,” says Dimke. “This pressure of kicking a football is actually a pressure that I enjoy. It’s really what I want at this point in my life. I’m going to keep working hard until the teams stop calling.”

Maher, undrafted out of Nebraska, was signed the day that Dimke was released. He spent two months with the Jets during OTAs and minicamp before he was cut.

Now, every afternoon, he works out at a local high school in his hometown of Kearney, Nebraska. His mornings are filled helping out special needs children at a local elementary school.

“You got to have a thick skin and be ready for everything if this is the career that you want to choose,” says Maher. “It did come as a surprise to me (when the Jets cut him), but I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been surprised in a moment like that.”

He spent a few weeks in Cowboys camp before getting the ax when rosters were trimmed to 75 in August.

“I feel like I’m good enough to compete at that level right now,” says Maher. “A couple years down the road, if things change and life goes in a different direction, then I’ll have to adjust. I’m just waiting for an opportunity to prove myself.”

Folk’s next tests were on the horizon.

* * *

Billy Cundiff had been everywhere and seen just about everything. He had signed 18 contracts with 11 teams before he got his crack at Folk at the start of training camp.

Folk, who admittedly needed to improve his kickoffs, wasn’t immune to new general manager John Idzik’s “competition” mantra.

“Nick outkicked me by quite a bit the first week,” says Cundiff. “After I got into a rhythm and I felt that I was really starting to compete with this guy, I thought things had turned in my favor.”

Cundiff, who was cut by the Redskins after a forgettable five-game start to last season, was released by the Jets two days after he made a game-winning field goal in overtime to beat the Giants in the third preseason game. Folk missed a 39-yarder earlier in overtime.

“You get analyzed on everything,” says Cundiff. “I had two bad practices before two of the preseason games. I felt maybe I gave them a chance to think about it a little bit. Instead of closing the door, I kind of left it open…. It’s tough to blow the guy out of the water. You can’t do it.”

Cundiff went home to Phoenix, but Folk still couldn’t exhale.

The Jets signed veteran Dan Carpenter for one more round of competition. Carpenter was cut four days later. He landed in Buffalo, where he’s made 22 of 24 field goals (91.7%).

Six days after the Jets cut Cundiff, the Browns scooped him up.

“Nick’s unshakeable,” says Cundiff, who’s made 88% of his field goal attempts in Cleveland. “It’s tough to get him flustered. Even when he wasn’t kicking that well in training camp, you knew that it was just a matter of time before he was going to get rolling.”

He’s on a roll of a lifetime.

* * *

Kickers are like left-handed relief pitchers: quirky, vitally important and always searching for acceptance.

“These guys do so much more than I do physically and mentally through each week,” Folk says of his teammates. “My playbook is: Hit the ball through the yellow things. They go through mounds and mounds of studying…. I want to prove to these guys that I am part of the team. I’m another guy. I’m not the kicker in the corner who wants to be by himself.”

Folk’s white-hot season hasn’t turned him into a slave to superstition. He has a preferred routine, but he won’t freak out if the plan is slightly altered. Special teams coach Ben Kotwica and assistant Louie Aguiar, who tapes all of Folk’s kicks in practice, lend helpful hints when needed.

Folk saves the bulk of his mechanical analysis for the offseason. Right now, the method is fairly simple: See ball. Kick ball.

“I don’t want to have a million thoughts in my head,” says Folk. “Golfers are sitting over the ball forever thinking about things. I don’t want that. I just want to go out there and kick it.”

Long snapper Tanner Purdum and holder Ryan Quigley have had near flawless execution through 11 weeks to help keep Folk in his comfort zone.

“I’m one bad kick from another guy coming in and taking my job,” says Folk. “That’s what keeps me on the edge to keep me moving forward.”

He knows anything short of perfection will land him in a familiar place. People will come to take what he has.

Who will it be?

It doesn’t matter.

@MMehtaNYDN

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