So what should we make of Garrett Hartley’s Saints career? No other New Orleans kicking specialist has ever been so compelling because no one else has ever combined such extraordinary success with so many pedantic failures, often with the successes and the failures happening in extreme proximity. Against the New York Jets this year he missed a middling field goal only a week after shanking a pair of them in the Superdome, so Sean Payton challenged him with a 55 yarder and, of course, Hartley delivered.
That sort of thing–great success in a high-intensity story-building moment, those times when Payton seems at his most “fleur-de-fuckin’-lis” Paytonian–is what kept Hartley around for five years. It made him a character in the big, baggy, ever-expanding novel about the Saints: a lovable screwup who seemed to always get his stuff together just in time.
But that’s not what being an NFL kicker is about. Kickers are better seen and not heard, or something. Misses are excusable, a part of the job, even game-losing misses, but not when they’re from inside 40 yards or, in Hartley’s almost unique-in-the-NFL case, inside 30. Let’s not forget that, a few weeks before his NFC Championship Game triumph and subsequent wonderful performance in the Super Bowl, Hartley established, against Tampa, what would become his trope: A short, nearly-automatic field goal pulled embarrassingly left of good.
It’d be silly of me to explore an alternate universe where this miss, coupled with a Vikings win over Chicago, gave Minnesota home field advantage and resulted in an NFC title game loss in the Metrodome rather than a win in the Superdome. After all, if the Vikings had beaten Chicago the Saints wouldn’t have rested their starters in the season finale. But I guess I just did.
Less than a calendar year later, the Hartley trope struck again, when his simple 29 yard game-winner went bad, and the Falcons beat the Saints in New Orleans.
This specific kind of failure became familiar to the point of absurdity. Everything, from Hartley’s off-balance hop after connecting with the football to the fan who throws his arms over his head in the bottom right corner of the frame, seems to happen exactly the same way every time. A right hashmark setup from a short distance, and then a knuckleball that flies so foul that we’re left wondering how he managed to push it that far left with so little green space between placement and goal post.
Even the rare shank would not have doomed Hartley’s Saints career. But, as it went on and his sample size increased, it became apparent that what we might have dismissed as a series of flukes was actually a trend. Hartley is simply not good at converting the routine-length field goals that, in the contemporary NFL, have become nearly automatic.
Consider: NFL kickers now make 94 percent of the field goals they attempt from within 40 yards. Hartley has made only 83 percent of those kicks during his career. In 2013, his four misses from that range lead the NFL. Hartley’s replacement, the 36 year-old Shayne Graham, who signed his first NFL contract in 2000 with the Saints, has missed eight of 91 attempts in the 30-39 yard range; Hartley has missed that many with only 33 attempts. Graham has made 93.4 percent of the sub-40 yard kicks he’s tried, which puts him right about at the current league average, and ten percentage points ahead of Hartley.
Don’t take any of that as some sort of endorsement of Shayne Graham. Certainly the guy has been a street free agent for a reason, and inserting a new kicker into the lineup four days before a game that will almost certainly determine the NFC South division title, with a first round bye and home divisional round playoff game thrown in to sweeten the pot, won’t do anything for Saints fans’ nerves. But, frankly, Hartley didn’t help our nerves either; he made every field goal interesting.
But so what’s Garrett Hartley’s legacy? Is he just another specialist who rode the kicker carousel through town for a few years before moving on to the next team, making some kicks, missing some, then repeating? No, I think. He’s not that. He’s not the usual anonymous, barely-remembered extra point converter. He’s more a part of the Saints’ story than any kicker who isn’t Morten Andersen, really, and, because of the specific nature of his success, may be even more integral to the franchise than the Great Dane. Hartley’s arrival midway through 2008 stabilized the Saints’ kicking situation–they’d cycled through the back to back to back horrors of Olindo Mare, Martin Gramatica, and Taylor Mehlaff before signing him–and then he took us all on an Adderall-infused trip to the Super Bowl and beyond into the post-title universe, finally meeting oblivion here, now, in 2013.
Replacing him was, by any measure, the right move, and was probably an overdue one. But it’s also a pretty sad move, because Garrett Hartley, in every way a kicker could have, gave Saints fans one hell of a ride.
Now let’s take a moment to remember better times. And let’s hope we get to feel these feelings again, soon.