In the last four weeks, Chiefs rookie Cairo Santos has experienced kicking in the coldest game, the windiest game and the wettest game of his life.
Yet through all the inclement conditions, Santos’ streak is still going strong at 13 consecutive made field goals heading into Sunday night’s game against Denver.
Santos’ season started shaky when he missed two of his first four field-goal attempts after he unseated veteran Ryan Succop as the Chiefs kicking specialist. But he hasn’t missed a field goal since week two at Denver.
That includes weathering 20 mph winds against the Jets and 20-degree temperatures and 10-degree wind chill against Seattle, both at Arrowhead Stadium, and a torrential downpour last week at Oakland.
Not exactly ideal conditions for Santos, the first Brazilian-born player in the NFL, who attended high school in Florida and played college football for Tulane in the Louisiana Superdome.
“It’s been challenging the last five weeks,” said Santos, who still has some sniffles from the wet night at Oakland, where he made field goals of 24 and 25 yards on the wet and muddy surface.
“It got pretty windy against St. Louis, and we didn’t think it could be worse than that, but it was windier against the Jets. We did well adjusting to it and trusting our swing and hitting the ball well. Then the cold came in, and we were still adjusting. It’s going to get tougher from now on. We have to accept that challenge.”
Santos’ streak of 13 is halfway toward the 26 consecutive field goals he made at Tulane in 2012-13, the second-longest streak in NCAA history.
“The thing I remember from that streak is I didn’t think about how many kicks it’s been, I kept thinking about how many I could keep making in a row,” said Santos, the Lou Groza Award winner in 2012 when he made all 21 of his field goal attempts.
“That’s the focus: Continue to make kicks and not think about what we’ve done in the past.”
Santos, an undrafted free agent, appeared on the verge of losing his job when he made some corrections in his approach.
“I found myself a lot of times out of my routine,” he said. “The regular season was new to me, and I found myself rushing everything … running onto the field too fast. From that point on, I decided to take my time. I talked to a lot of vets who helped me establish a better routine.
“We do have a play clock of 40 seconds, so there’s no need to kick the ball when there’s 17 seconds left. Take your time, feel the wind … (holder) Dustin Colquitt and I pick a good spot where my footing feels good … and relax. I’ve been doing that, and it’s been working.”
One of the veterans who counseled Santos was Succop, who was signed by Tennessee after his release by the Chiefs and outkicked the rookie in the Titans’ season-opening upset of the Chiefs at Arrowhead. Succop told Santos of his missing three of his first four attempts in 2011 before making 22 straight, tying the club record set by Pete Stoyanovich in 1997-98.
“Kickers can’t run away from the fact there’s going to be ups and downs,” said Santos. “It’s about being mentally strong and always thinking about the next kick.”
Santos’ most dramatic kick was the last-second, game-winning 48-yard field goal at San Diego, and his longest field goal was a 53-yarder with no time left in the first half that gave the Chiefs a 10-7 lead.
“The San Diego game gave me the confidence to believe that I can continue to kick well,” Santos said. “Coach (Andy) Reid said it best that week, that we were due for an opportunity like that, and it definitely got me going.
“Any time you can make kicks to put your team ahead in the game is a great feeling, and when it’s a 50-yard plus field goal, it’s a great confidence-builder for the team.”
Santos realizes he needs to improve on his kickoffs. After booting 17 touchbacks in the first seven games, he’s had just two in the last four games. Some of that is by design, when the Chiefs had him kick short or concentrate on hang time to prevent long runbacks against returners like Percy Harvin of the Jets and Tavon Austin of the Rams; some is due to the colder weather, and some is because Santos needs to add some strength to his 5-8, 160-pound frame.
“The weather can cut down five to eight yards on your kickoffs alone if the temperature is less than freezing,” said Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. “The other thing is he’s a young guy, a slightly built guy and he needs to put on about 10 or 15 pounds on his lower body. When he does that the strength will come and so will those kickoffs.”
When Santos kicked to Harvin eight yards deep in the end zone, Harvin returned it 65 yards only to be stopped at the Chiefs 43 by Santos, who stuck out his right leg and tripped him, drawing a penalty as well as criticism from the Jets, who expressed disappointment that Santos wasn’t fined for the “tackle.”
“I don’t know if I got credit for the tackle,” Santos smiled, “but I definitely got some attention in the media.”