Jason Hanson has made 31 of 35 field goals this season, including 18 from 40-49 yards. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
It was late in the first quarter when ESPN interrupted the flow of the football game with one of its infernal TV timeouts to present a series of commercials. Out across the sideline stepped Jason Hanson to practice what he has done so brilliantly for 21 years now.
One step to a pinpoint on the turf, then a few backward and diagonally to the left. Then the steps forward to the imaginary spot, the pirouette — and the kicking action. All without the football.
Place-kickers are a different sort of NFL athlete.
That is if they even are considered athletes by their oversized, muscled teammates who endure the hits and the bruises of professional football. Hmmm, there are even some rough-hewn sports journalists who dare to consider place-kickers not to be athletes.
What fools some of us are!
In all the 90 or so years since the NFL was established at a landmark auto dealership in Canton, Ohio, one pure place-kicker has been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We — the guys sitting around the long, rectangular table arguing and debating — put Jan Stenerud into the Hall in 1991.
And it was a contentious meeting that pre-Super Bowl morning/afternoon when the electors voted in favor of Stenerud.
Some day — these journalist/electors, one per NFL franchise city — ought to put Jason Hanson into the Hall of Fame. Only the naÔve and ignorant would dispute that.
And some do.
If not the best place-kicker ever, Hanson is preciously close in ability and success to Stenerud. FYI for the doubters: Hanson does not get as many opportunities to kick extra points as fellow kickers. He has, indeed, played for the Lions since 1992. Thus, he has been the victim of feeble football.
Lion for life
It is a curious asterisk in the history of pro football and the history of Super Bowls that Hanson follows in a rich heritage among Lions place-kickers. The franchise has never qualified for any of the 46 Super Bowls.
But four of their place-kickers have been Super Bowl winners — for other teams. Three of them won Super Bowls after they were discarded by the Lions.
The enchanting Garo Yepremian — who joined the Lions in a midseason tryout in the 1960s — was part of the Miami Dolphins undefeated Super Bowl VII champions. He earned a ring — even if he darn near cost the Dolphins their perfect season by trying to throw a pass off a blocked field-goal attempt.
Errol Mann — with the Lions from 1969 to 1976 — kicked two field goals for the Oakland Raiders in their championship Super Bowl XI.
And Eddie Murray — the Lions' excellent kicker from 1980-91— kicked for the Cowboys in their Super Bow XXVII victory.
Before them, there was Jim O'Brien, who kicked the championship winner for the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V — and later became the Lions' kicker in 1973.
All these Super Bowl champion kickers plus Stenerud were vagabonds, traveling from club to club. Murray played for seven NFL teams, the Cowboys and Redskins twice.
Getting dumped and replaced seems to be part of the place-kicking culture.
It is doubtful whether Hanson will ever have such luck, being dumped by the Lions — and joining another team.
He is 42 now. He has played for the Lions for all 21 of his NFL seasons — half his life.
Yet through all the hollow seasons and those exceptions when the Lions made the playoffs — and then lost — Hanson has been the quintessential NFL kicker. He fit firmly into the prototype established by the affable Stenerud.
Hanson's contract expires after Sunday's game, ending another frustrating season of gloom and defeat. I presume the Lions will not try to wound themselves by giving Hanson the old-fashioned Detroit ziggy (Joe Schmidt's term for booting a guy out of town).
Place-kicker is one position the Lions have no need to change in any re-tooling for 2013. And interpreting Hanson's remarks to Detroit sports journalists late last week, he would be eager to play season No. 22.
"I have no skills other than this, so I better come back," Hanson said in Allen Park.
For certain, kickers are athletes, just different.
They practice separately, away from the guys on the team. Hanson has his own methods, even as he practices during games. He refines his mincing steps, his twists, his turns, his run up to the imaginary football.
All pro kickers have their special styles of preparedness. But what they can never practice for is the pressure placed on them by their teammates.
So often they are summoned with the clock down to three seconds and the team behind by two points. A 47-yard field goal translates into victory and a championship; a kick wide inches to the right translates into defeat and despair.
And the guy who misses by such a tiny margin is destined to be a goat for life. Even when his teammates should have advanced the ball 15 yards closer to the goalposts.
Scott Norwood, to me, remains a tragic innocent in the NFL's Super Bowl history. He entered Super Bowl XXV with eight seconds left. The Bills trailed by one point. They had the ball at the Giants' 29, the result of a drive at had started at Buffalo's 10. Jim Kelly had moved the Bills 61 yards in what seemed a rather carefree drive.
There had been ample opportunity to advance another 10 yards with better management of the clock and play calling. The Bills had burdened Norwood with a 47-yard field-goal attempt. Win or lose on this kick.
Then Norwood did his little practice routine. The Giants called the timeout to increase the tension.
Norwood's kick traveled far enough. But it veered to the right, not far outside the goalpost.
The Giants celebrated the first of the franchise's four Super Bowl victories. They have won two others on the skills of quarterback Eli Manning. This one they won 20-19 — because the other team gave a place-kicker a too tiny target — under the deepest pressure imaginable in professional sports.
Last week, ESPN and America rightfully went agog over Calvin Johnson's bashing of Jerry Rice's most precious pass receiving record. Less remarkable, it was a game that typified Jason Hanson's 21-season career. Johnson made history in spectacular fashion on a national stage. Hanson's contribution to NFL history? He kicked three field goals — and the Lions' lost to the Falcons, 31-18.
Just one more game in a career so powerful and productive that makes Hanson worthy of election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.