BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Everyone in Bourbonnais is trying to get a closer look at the Bears’ kicking competition. Coaches watch from the sidelines, media members chart each and every kick, and fans cheer like the NFC Wild Card game depends on it.
So while it feels like all of Chicago is looking at Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliot Fry through a microscope, there’s perhaps no one with a better view of the battle than Pat O’Donnell and Patrick Scales. O’Donnell, the team’s place holder, and Scales, who long-snaps, have arguably the least-glamorous yet vitally-important job on the team: putting the ball where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. It may seem like a minor responsibility, but as Bears’ fans will be quick to tell you, nothing about the kicking game is a given anymore.
“Obviously it’s a focal point, and the media is bringing it to the light,” Scales said after Tuesday’s practice. “You can’t hide from it, so we just go out and do the best we can, and let the chips fall where they do.”
The process starts with Scales. Solely designated as a long-snapper on the team’s first official roster of 2019, the nine-year vet has more than enough time on his hands to get it just right.
“Obviously it’s something we’ve done hundreds of thousands of times,” he added. “I always try to look for that one edge that will make you better, so yeah we’re constantly trying to perfect it and get better.
“What I tell myself before I snap is aim small, miss small. So I focus on a target, and I laser focus. I don’t watch the ball flight to the target, I just watch the target.”
The target, of course, is Pat O’Donnell’s hand. And anyone who’s watched Ace Ventura knows the cardinal-rule of holding.
“Ideally what you want to do is get the laces turned around, and obviously you don’t want the laces back into the kicker,” O’Donnell said. But what about in, say, a notoriously stiff wind that comes whipping off the Great Lakes?
“Given a windy day like this, we play with the laces,” he added. “So if it holds true, it almost acts like a rudder. So the further you lean a ball [any given direction], the further the wind is going to push it. So there’s a little more physics involved.”
Outside of helping the team move on from
Finkle Einhorn Cody Parkey, O’Donnell will be relied upon heavily to repeat his punting performance from 2018, which was one of his career bests. Per analytics site Pro Football Focus, O’Donnell was a Top-10 punter in average hang time, balls downed, touch backs, and balls placed inside the 20. Overall, his 68.5 PFF grade was the 11th best of anyone at the position.
His distance numbers aren’t quite as impressive, but that’s actually by design. Special teams coach Chris Tabor knows that punting at Soldier Field is a unique beast, and one that requires more finesse than the average NFL stadium.
“I think Tabor has really helped me evolve as a player,” O’Donnell said. “He’s a type of guy who loves fair catches at 45 and he loves obviously no returns, so we cut down on yardage that way, and he’s really happy about that.”
“Obviously fans love to see the 60, 70 yard punts but you’re going to have at least a 20 yard return on that, so. I think it’s good to have a guy like that who understands the weather here, and sometimes a 40-yard punt is going to be good.”