A crazy thing happened Thursday night during the Bears' preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.
Well, it would've been crazy for 31 teams in the NFL. For the Bears? Consider it part of the norm for their kicking competition.
The scene: Running back David Montgomery, the Bears’ third-round pick and a trendy rookie of the year candidate, impressively scythed into the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown. He displayed all the things that should excite Bears fans about his skillset: Vision, patience, toughness, tackle-breaking, quickness, etc. A decent cheer emanated from the stands.
Then Elliott Fry trotted out to attempt a PAT. Ninety-four percent of PAT attempts were successful in 2018. Fry, routinely, made his try.
The crowd of over 45,000 at Soldier Field let out a louder cheer than the one it just had for Montgomery’s touchdown.
How often does a PAT get a louder cheer from fans than a touchdown in any circumstance? Even if a touchdown ties a game and a PAT wins it, it’s not the case. Players on the sideline, especially the ones not playing, noticed the noise difference between Montgomery’s touchdown and Fry’s kick.
Fry said he tuned everything out, which is probably good, because that kind of attention and focus on a PAT wouldn't be healthy for any kicker to notice.
“You learn to kind of cope with everything and every kick is just kind of the same,” Fry said. “I don’t go out there and think oh, this is so much different because I’m in a game. (You) really gotta be good at thinking every kick is the same.”
In a bit of serendipity, Fry attempted a 43-yard field goal going toward the north end zone with time expiring at the end of the first half — the same distance and location of Cody Parkey’s double-doink, which set this whole thing in motion seven months ago. As Fry lined up his kick, a fan near the press box cathartically screamed “don’t hit the crossbar!”
“It was a 43 — Obviously that number’s been ingrained into my memory,” Fry said. “I did know that.
“… I’m not out there thinking about Cody’s kick from last year. I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m just going in and focusing on making it.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera used a timeout to ice Fry, saying: "I did that to help the Bears." Matt Nagy certainly appreciated the gesture from the ex-Bears linebacker and defensive coordinator.
“It wasn't planned,” Nagy said, “but I'm kind of glad he did it.”
Fry made the kick, eliciting a roar from the crowd as players jogged back to the locker room. He had the best day of either Bears kicker, with Eddy Pineiro missing wide left on a poorly-struck 48-yard field goal before connecting on a 29-yard chip shot.
“It’s not fun to miss,” Pineiro said. “You want to make every single kick. But I’m going to learn from it, bounce back next game and hit my kicks. That’s what I’m here for.”
The Bears have seen Fry and Pineiro kick plenty during training camp practices — 94 times between the two, to be exact — but will place a greater weight on what these kickers do during preseason games. Fry was better in the first of four preseason games, which might give him a slight advantage but nothing Pineiro can’t overcome.
“We'll go through this thing and let them see what kind of production they show us,” Nagy said. “This was the big stage tonight for them. It's as big as we can get it before the season starts.”
What if “The Guy” isn’t on the Bears right now?
The best kicker on the field Thursday night in Chicago was Carolina’s Joey Slye, an undrafted rookie from Virginia Tech who nailed kicks of 29, 42 and 55 yards. Consider that an impressive tryout for a guy the Panthers have on their roster mainly to give veteran Graham Gano some rest.
"Joey did a great job," Rivera said. "He was given an opportunity and took advantage of it. He's handled it very well. Every day in practice he got better and better. He was sitting there waiting for the opportunity. The first couple days of practice, I think he missed three the first day, two the second and I think he was 8 for 8 or whatever it was in practice. He just seemed to get his confidence and kicked the ball well."
Slye is one of a handful of kickers who will become available in the coming weeks, providing the Bears an opportunity to look outside the organization for their Week 1 kicker. And around the league, there were two notable performances Thursday night by kickers who won’t make their current teams.
The Baltimore Ravens’ Kaare Vedvik — who’s behind arguably the NFL’s best kicker, Justin Tucker — made all four of his field goal tries (26 yards, 29 yards, 45 yards, 55 yards) against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens believe they can get value for Vedvik in a trade, hence why he’s kicking for them for the second consecutive preseason while Tucker is cemented on their roster. Vedvik landed on the reserve/non-injured list after an incident during 2018’s Labor Day weekend that sidelined him all year.
Another kicker to watch: Cole Hedlund, who made all three of his field goal tries (25 yards, 42 yards, 44 yards) for the Indianapolis Colts. Hedlund is behind Adam Vinatieri — who’s arguably the best kicker in NFL history — and, like the Ravens, the Colts believe they can get a draft pick or a player for the undrafted rookie from North Texas. The Bears play the Colts on Aug. 24 in Indianapolis, so they’ll get an up-close look at Hedlund then.
Elsewhere around the league, there was only one field goal attempt in the Cleveland Browns’ competition, with Greg Joseph connecting from 43 yards. Joseph missed a PAT, though, as rookie Austin Seibert made both his PAT tries.
In Green Bay, Mason Crosby and Sam Ficken made both their PAT tries but did not attempt a field goal in the Packers’ game against the Houston Texans.