FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Steve Hoffman strolls off the practice field, a video camera in one hand and a young kicker hanging on his every word.
They're chatting about the subtlest of techniques. They're discussing the mental challenges of handling a solitary job in a team sport. They're talking about what it's going to take to be Hoffman's next star pupil.
You see, if you're a no-name kicker trying to make it in the NFL, Hoffman is the guru.
"Teams don't want to spend a lot of money on kickers," said Hoffman, the Falcons' new assistant special teams coach. "But they want a good guy at that position."
During 16 years with the Dallas Cowboys, he made a career of transforming anonymous rookies and unwanted free agents into reliable kickers who barely made a blip on the team's almighty salary cap.
The Cowboys used five kickers - Ken Willis, Lin Elliott, Chris Boniol, Richie Cunningham and Tim Seder - over an eight-year period and weren't much worse than teams that spent millions of dollars on an established veteran.
Dallas' five-legged kicking cohort connected on 81.5 percent of the field goal attempts during that span, including the playoffs and two Super Bowls. Boniol had streaks of 25 and 27 in a row. Cunningham missed only three of his first 37 attempts, making 18 straight at one point.
"If you're going to win the lottery," Hoffman said, "you've got to buy a ticket."
The Falcons have decided to take a chance - at least for training camp. They cut ties with veteran Todd Peterson, who made 23-of-25 attempts last season. They hired Hoffman with hopes that he could find and groom a low-priced replacement.
"In the age of salary cap, you want to find young guys for that position," Falcons coach Jim Mora said. "That way, you save some money to spend elsewhere."
Hoffman started out with an eclectic group of four kickers, only one of whom had previous NFL experience. The team cut the list of hopefuls in half after a minicamp last month, deciding to take Zac Derr and Tony Yelk to training camp in late July.
The 27-year-old Derr is only 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds. He hasn't kicked for a team since 2001, his senior year at Akron. He got a tryout with Hoffman's Cowboys in 2002 but was cut before training camp. Giving up on the idea of playing in the NFL, he spent the last two years studying at a seminary.
Yelk is another of Hoffman's kind of guys.
Early in his career at Iowa State, Yelk missed a field goal attempt. The Cyclones never really gave him a second chance, relegating him to punting and kickoff duties. Hoffman feels like he deserves another chance to be a field goal specialist.
"They're hungry," Hoffman said. "They're grateful for the opportunity."
Hoffman's background is as varied as the kickers he brings in. He has a bachelor's degree in economics and a masters in sports administration. He punted for the long-forgotten Washington Generals in the USFL. He spent one season as a high school coach. He even went to Italy for a couple of years to work with fledgling teams.
Over the past year, Hoffman worked as a consultant for NFL teams and gave private lessons to college kids and high school wannabes. But he wanted to get back in the game. He jumped at the chance to work with Falcons special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, a friend since the 1990s when both coached in the NFC East.
"Steve doesn't want to just be a kicking coach," Mora said. "He wants to be a special teams coordinator someday."
During practice, Hoffman hovers around the kickers with his own video camera. He makes his own tapes so can analyze the smallest details without burdening the team's regular film crew.
"I've got stop and go. I've got split screen. I can superimpose one kick on top of another kick," Hoffman said. "I burn the tapes onto DVDs and take them home with me."
Hoffman's solitary style is passed on to his kickers, who must learn to cope with the fact that they're not like everyone else on the team.
"Kickers are good athletes in their own way, but they're nothing like these other guys," Hoffman said. "I always tell them, 'You're lucky that when they made the rules for this game, they put in a kicker. Keep your mouth shut. You're only as good as your next kick.'"
Mora compares Hoffman to a swing coach in golf.
"He's one of those guys who gets real scientific about it," the head coach said. "He's made it his passion."
Hoffman starts out slowly with his kickers, feeling that too many teams make the mistake of throwing a youngster into tough situations right away.
Hey kid, can you make this 47-yarder into the wind? If not, you're outta here.
"I just want them to get their foot on the ball," Hoffman said. "Then, once they're feeling comfortable and confident, I want to put them under a little duress. You've got to develop a kicker like you do any other position."
As time goes along, he baits them, he challenges them, he puts them in tougher and tougher scenarios.
"It's not just the kicks," Hoffman said. "It's the way they carry themselves. A lot of times, they don't even know I'm looking at them."
And what is he looking for?
"I want to see the look in their eyes during pressure situations," Hoffman said. "That is the telltale sign of how they will hold up."
There's more to kicking than the kicker. Hoffman also spends a lot of time working with the snapper and holder, knowing the chance of success increases when those two jobs are handled flawlessly.
"If you really look at field goal kickers, the difference between the good ones and the bad ones is usually only three or four kicks a year," Hoffman said. "I try to find a way to make sure they don't miss those three or four kicks."
The Falcons already have punter Michael Koenen to handle the kickoffs, so all they're looking for is someone to make field goals and extra points. And, if neither Derr nor Yelk works out, they can always sign one of those veterans who surely will be available in the waning days of the preseason.
"I was kicking with Eddie Murray not long ago. He's 48 years old, and he made 36 of 38 all the way out to 53 yards," Hoffman said. "There's always a guy out there."
Clearly, though, Hoffman would prefer to develop someone on his own. He believes it's important to have a kicker who's been around the team throughout the offseason - working out together, joking around together, developing a camaraderie and confidence that will pay off when the real games begin.
Hoffman knows what his proteges are going through, too. He's going through it himself.
"You feel the pressure," Hoffman said. "A lot of people have worked hard and spent a lot of money, then it comes down to a young kicker that you've developed. But it's an exciting challenge."
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