TEMPE, Ariz. — That the Arizona Cardinals decided to go with rookie Chandler Catanzaro over 14-year NFL veteran Jay Feely was not an upset.
Catanzaro, after all, has a stronger leg than Feely, had been perfect on his field goal and extra point attempts in the preseason, and had consistently put the ball in the back of the end zone on kickoff attempts.
Still, when news came down that the team had decided to place its trust in a rookie, some people wondered if the Cardinals were making the right decision.
“They were both about the same field goal-wise, the kickoffs obviously were a huge difference, although Jay had really improved his,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked of the decision. “I just liked the strength of his leg for a young guy. He has a very good demeanor about him.”
The average distance traveled on Catanzaro’s kickoffs was 69.3 yards, while Feely was booting them a full 70 yards down the field. However, the average return on the veteran’s kickoffs was more than 3.5 yards higher than those on the rookie’s.
Whatever the reasons, the Cardinals made the decision to go with the former Clemson Tiger who connected on 67-of-82 field goal attempts in college while finishing as the second leading scorer in ACC history.
“I called my parents, everybody, my whole family is really ecstatic, as well as me,” he said when asked what he did upon hearing the news. “I teared up a little bit. It’s just a life-long dream coming true for me.
“From here on out I know I’ve got to earn my right to be here, but for now I’m celebrating a little bit. I’m really excited about it.”
And that’s just it for the 23-year-old. Just because he earned the job in training camp does not mean he is guaranteed to keep it for the duration of the season. Plenty of young kickers have come and go, with very few being good enough and consistent enough to last in the league.
Think about it: There’s a reason so many kickers play well into their late 30s and some even into their 40s.
Interestingly enough, the question mark facing Catanzaro entering camp was his ability to handle kickoffs. While in college, Catanzaro was left to watch as punter Bradley Pinion handled kickoffs, leaving him left to prove to NFL teams he could do a job that, quite frankly, is rarely a question mark when it comes to young kickers.
“It’s another thing people kind of doubted me on,” he said. “I was really excited to get working after the year was over, after the Orange Bowl at Clemson, to work on the kickoff leg. I knew that was kind of my knock coming out, and I just worked my tail off.”
Catanzaro said he worked with former NFL kickers Morten Andersen, Dan Orner and Jamie Kohl over the offseason, always believing he could successfully handle kickoffs but knowing he needed get some reps in doing it.
“I’m very excited about where my kickoffs are right now; I’m very confident,” he said.
Thursday’s preseason finale against the Chargers will be Catanzaro’s first game as the kicker, and he said he’s looking forward to going out and solidifying himself in that role.
“I know from here on out that I have to earn my right to play every day, so I’m willing to work as hard as I ever have to keep this job and earn the right to be here,” he said.
That will mean forcing touchbacks and converting on field goal and PAT attempts, some of which will likely occur late in close games. As a rookie he has no track record of making clutch kicks in the NFL, which is why some people are skeptical of the decision to part with Feely, who has made 11 game-winning field goals in his career — including six with the Cardinals.
But that risk is of no concern to the coach who made the decision to go with the rookie.
“Every position, they’re all the same,” he said. “You either can or you can’t.”
Catanzaro said when he’s on the field he is able to block out factors like crowd size and noise, letting himself “get in a zone” where he can block everything else out. He also said experience won’t be an issue because of how much he kicked in college, and added the difference in pressure between then and now won’t be a factor.
“Pressure’s pressure,” he said. “I don’t really think of it as pressure. I just take every kick and just zone in and do the best I can do.”
Besides, it’s not as if having to try and win a job from an established NFL veteran does not come with its own kind of pressure.
“Now I can just kind of focus on being the best me I can be,” Catanzaro said. “I’m not really focused on competing against anybody else anymore. I’m competing against myself and trying to get better each day so I can help this team win games this year.
“I’m excited about it.”