It's not always a good thing when the giddiest takeaway of the entire afternoon at a Rams scrimmage was the sight of a rookie place kicker booming footballs into the stratosphere, but in this wonderfully extraordinary case, it could be as good as good can get.
Say hello to Greg Zuerlein, the scene stealer before nearly 13,000 spectators who showed up on Saturday afternoon for the Rams first fan appreciation day at the Edward Jones Dome. I know it might be way too early to be making bold statements about a sixth-rounder who was only the 171st player chosen in last April's NFL Draft, but allow me to be the first to apply for the job of the driver of the official Greg Zuerlein bandwagon.
After barely a week of training camp, and having watched the kid swing his foot through a football as if he had some sort of bionics tucked in that remarkable right leg, I'm ready to say he not only has the leg to make the Rams look positively brilliant for putting their kicking game in the hands of a rookie from a Division II school most folks in Missouri couldn't find with a GPS (Missouri Western), but he just might have the goods to become some sort of engaging local phenomenon.
I'm thinking t-shirts and made-for-TV specials. I'm thinking a special section in the upper reaches of the Dome for all his rabid devotees to gather (Section Z). I'm thinking of a contest to give this dude a nickname worthy of a bionic kicker who regularly crushes footballs through the uprights from beyond 50 yards.
Since he arrived in camp, Zuerlein has been nailing field goals in practice from as far away as 60 yards. His 50- and 60-yarders are not low streakers that barely skip over the crossbar. They are high and authoritative rockets that leave no doubt that they have enough juice to be good from five to 10 yards more. So when he lined up to kick at the end of the two-minute offense segment of Saturday's scrimmage, the crowd began to buzz a bit when they recognized the potential power in the early kicks from 40 yards that soared high enough to hit the giant endzone TV screen behind the goal post if not for the net catching the footballs.
"Yeah, our kicker, wow, it's been pretty impressive to watch," said quarterback Sam Bradford, who just like the rest of us was shaking his head at the mere mention of Zuerlein's name. "To have that in your back pocket, to know we don't have to get to the 30-yard line to give ourselves a chance."
What the crowd was buzzing about was the noticeable difference between the way Zuerlein's kicks and those of second-year free agent kicker Garrett Lindholm, who had just hit on a 50- and 54-yarder. The way Lindholm's balls just sort of barely cleared the goalpost, he must have felt like he was the warm-up act for a rock star as soon as Zuerlein started his rotation and the way the fans reacted.
Zuerlein's 50-yarder was still rising when it went through the uprights. The 54-yarder did the same thing. These were no-doubter kicks, hard, high and impressive, and now the fans were going nuts, cheering like rock fans demanding an encore.
So, Fisher waved his hand in the general direction of special teams coach John Fassel, giving him the go-ahead to give the people what they wanted.
So, the kid goes back five more yards and lines up for a 59-yarder.
BAM. Crushed again right through the middle of the uprights.
The fans exploded and the line of scrimmage was moved back another five yards and there was Zuerlein instructing his holder to set up from an imposing 64 yards away.
The ball was snapped, the hold was perfect, Zuerlein stepped through the ball, launching it high and fast. It was long enough, but the 64-yarder tailed off to the left, a foot wide.
Oh, yeah, and get this. The kid was mad that he missed it. Genuinely ticked off, like he's actually done better than that before, which by the way he has. In college last season, he made an NCAA Division II-record 21 consecutive field goals, including nine from 50 yards-plus.
"I go out there expecting to make every single kick," Zuerlein said. "I had the distance, but I didn't connect on it. I'd like to make every kick, and when I don't, it's kind of disappointing. But other than that, it was a good day."
So, after seeing him nearly make a 59-yard kick on Saturday and after witnessing a few 60-yarders in practice, the next logical question for Zuerlein was just how far has he kicked a football.
"Longest ever? Oh, it was a 74-yarder with probably about 60 miles of wind behind me in a pre-game warmup before a game last year," he said. "Without the wind? Probably about 66 or 67."
But let's go back to that 74-yarder, I said. Seriously, you made a field goal from seventy-four yards!!?
"Yeah," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But it was with a lot of wind. A lot of wind."
Well, I don't care if he kicked it in a wind tunnel with gale-force winds churning at his back and the football was strapped to a hang-glider. Normal people can't kick a football 74 yards under any condition.
I know it's early. I know a lot can happen when you place your faith in a rookie kicker who has never performed before a crowd larger than 22,000 and who has never seen what a real kick rush looks like. Or what the roar of 65,000 enemy fans sounds like.
But there's a reason Fassel spent so much time scouting him, poring over endless film and putting him through two private workouts. There is a reason why Fisher and general manager Les Snead were so confident that they cut veteran Josh Brown on the same day they drafted Zuerlein and basically handed him the job.
I think we saw that reason on Saturday. Who has tickets for Section Z?