Kevin Gorman: Pressure brings out best in Steelers kicker Chris Boswell
Mike Tomlin promised to “create a little pressure” for Chris Boswell this preseason, pushing the fifth-year kicker to return to Pro Bowl form for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That became the burning question throughout training camp: What constituted a pressure kick? The countdown kicks at Saint Vincent or the field-goal showdown during Family Fest at Heinz Field? Or were the Steelers saving it for game situations?
“They’re all just kicks,” Boswell said with shrug. “The pressure is the outside stuff put on you. That never really changes anything about kicking. That doesn’t change when you kick. A kick is a kick. You’ve just got to play it by that.”
But Boswell knows this: a miss isn’t just a miss.
Too many more of those could cost Boswell his job, especially coming off a season in which he converted a career-worst 65 percent (13 of 20) field goals — including a pair of potential game-winners — and missed five extra points (43 of 48).
In an eight-minute interview at his locker Wednesday afternoon at UPMC Rooney Sports Performance Complex on the South Side — and, trust me, that’s an eternity for the soft-spoken Texan — Boswell took a shot at every question I asked.
His answers split the uprights.
It started with how he handled being asked about the Steelers signing Matthew Wright, a rookie from UCF, to challenge for kicking duties.
“It’s good for everybody. Every other position has competition, per se. Why not have it for us?” Boswell said. “It does bring out the best in everybody. We’ll see where it goes.”
Has it brought out the best in Boswell?
“It’s taken me to another level,” Boswell said. “I’ve just got to keep it there.”
So far, so good. Boswell is rising to the challenge this preseason, converting field goals of 33 and 47 yards in the opener against Tampa Bay and making all three extra-point attempts through the first two games. Wright converted a 42-yarder against Tampa Bay and a 46-yarder against Kansas City, as well as two extra points.
But Boswell was more consistent in camp and has an advantage because of his history with the Steelers, what Tomlin might call an NFL resume and game tape. But Boswell was blunt when asked if he believes he’s back to his old form.
“No, because it’s definitely a kick-to-kick game,” Boswell said of taking turns with Wright. “You could say that, and you could miss the next couple, and then you’re right back to thinking those things about last year. So I don’t get caught up in how it was last year. I don’t get caught up in how it was in my career. I’m here today, and I’m only worried about kicking it hard in practice. That’s about it.”
It wasn’t long ago that Boswell was the toast of town — the Wizard of Boz, if you will — when he set a record for most field goals in a postseason game (six) at Kansas City in 2016 and followed that by kicking winning field goals as time expired in three consecutive games in 2017.
Last season, Boswell became better known for his botches. It started in the season-opening tie at Cleveland. Stunning as it was to see him miss a potential winning field goal in overtime, you could blame the damp and dreary conditions.
But his costly misses in close losses against Kansas City and at Denver, a game where he threw a touchdown pass to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva on a fake field goal, became cause for catcalls that the Steelers should cut Boswell only months after signing him to a four-year, $16.8-million contract extension.
The low moment came at Oakland, when Boswell had a chance to kick a tying 40-yard field goal with five seconds left. Instead, as he stared into the Black Hole, his plant foot slid and he slipped. The 24-21 loss cost the Steelers a shot at making the playoffs, and Boswell’s job was clearly in jeopardy.
“A lot of it’s on me. The kick is on me. My steps are on me. Everything’s on me,” Boswell said. “It’s one of those things where I had to just swallow it and move past it as fast as I could.”
The hardest part for Boswell came when the Steelers placed him on injured reserve for the season finale against Cincinnati, and he had to watch Matt McCrane kick three field goals, including the winner from 35 yards with 1:56 remaining in the 16-13 victory.
“Some things happened to where that had to happen,” Boswell said of his groin injury, “but it’s definitely not fun to watch somebody else do your job.”
Sports Illustrated’s MMQB even headlined a story, “How Kicking Killed The 2018 Steelers — And What To Do About It For 2019,” where former Steelers kicker Jeff Reed suggested that Boswell’s problems were all mental.
Boswell learned the hard way how not to listen to the critics.
“I used to (care) a lot,” Boswell said. “I kind of learned that you’ve got to tune it out as best as you can, just not care about what anybody says. Everybody’s got an opinion about you. I’ve got an opinion about me. When I’m out there, it’s me against me. It’s not me against what everybody is saying about me.
“Over the years — whether it was my Pro Bowl year, when I missed one kick and people come at you the wrong way, or whether it was last year, when a lot went wrong so it was more, even the good years I had here — as soon as I miss people are willing to jump on you. The more you pay attention to it, the more you think about it.”
That’s a sign of progress. After missing at Cleveland, Boswell kicked 42-yarders from the right hash in the dark from the same spot at the Steelers’ indoor complex. Where I saw it at the time as a sign of his willingness to work on a weakness, in hindsight it might have showed that he was having a hard time letting go.
The Steelers had Boswell work this past spring with former kicker Shaun Suisham, who warned him that it was only burning the miss into his brain. Suisham told him to live kick to kick, and Boswell hasn’t had a choice by sharing them with Wright.
Then there’s the matter of the $2 million roster bonus that the Steelers pushed back on Boswell.
“That’s not something I’ve even thought about,” Boswell said. “I’m worried about the season and worried about being here.”
That’s what appears different about Boswell’s mentality. He has a laser-like focus, knowing that every kick counts. But he’s more concerned with his next kick than the big picture.
“I’m tuning that part out because at the drop of a hat, it could be the other way again,” Boswell said. “I’m going to be here doing my job as long as they want me here, as long as they’ll have me. If the fans love me, that’s great. But when I’m out there, it’s just me against me.
“It’s the business we’re in. It’s the life of a kicker. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately game. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to at all last year, but I’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”
For Boswell, it’s about the next kick. He has experienced the highs of hitting game-winners, and he knows the lows of missing kicks that cost the Steelers a victory.
So it comes down to this: Split the uprights. Or else.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .