The New Orleans Saints felt sure enough about kicker Garrett Hartley that they cut the player challenging him for his job four days before the preseason debut.
Hartley has so far justified that prompt show of faith with two preseason games down, knocking in all five field goals — one of which tied the longest of his career — and four extra points he attempted in wins against the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
Only one player has scored more points than Hartley as the NFL heads into its third week of preseason games.
“My body feels great, and the ball striking is where I want it right now,” Hartley said at the end of Monday’s practice in Metairie. “It’s only going to continue to get better.”
Coach Sean Payton agreed Hartley has been “very good.”
“He’s been solid,” Payton said. “He’s been very consistent.”
Since arriving in New Orleans in 2008 as a rookie, Hartley has appeared in 43 regular season games, making 60 of the 71 field goals he’s tried in them, a sound 84.5 percent.
He also made the 40-yard field goal that clinched the Saints’ first NFC championship as well as 44-, 46-, and 47-yarders that helped them win Super Bowl XLIV.
However, at times, Hartley has had trouble converting field goals from fewer than 40 yards away — seven of his career misses have been on attempts that were between 27 and 38 yards out.
For Saints fans, perhaps the most notorious missed field goal from close range by Hartley was one from 29 yards out that would have defeated the Atlanta Falcons in overtime during Week 3 of the 2010 season. The Falcons ultimately won that game with an overtime field goal on the way to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC. The Saints, who split the regular-season series with Atlanta, finished 11-5 and lost a wildcard round playoff game on the road to the Seattle Seahawks.
After he missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury and played all 16 games in 2012, Hartley started training camp competing against undrafted rookie kicker Jose Carlos Maltos.
Hartley said he entered training camp having focused on technical aspects of the kicking game, such as his timing approaching the ball and where his heel is positioned when he strikes it.
He also worked on growing accustomed to a new holder, backup quarterback Luke McCown, to improve his overall consistency, especially on the field goals from 40 yards and within, which Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon describes as the “makeable” ones.
“The makeable field goals have to be made,” Hartley said. “That’s definitely a point of emphasis of mine.”
Hartley was kicking accurately while Maltos missed numerous attempts to open training camp. The Saints then waived Maltos on Aug. 5 to make room for replacements to injured wide receivers.
On Aug. 9, the Saints didn’t ask Hartley to do too much in a 17-13 victory against the Chiefs. He hit a 24-yard field goal as well as two extra points.
Hartley’s workload was heavier against the Raiders, though, and he delivered. He nailed field goals from 28, 30, 31 and 53 yards out, the longest of which tied his career best. He added two extra points as the Saints topped Oakland 28-20.
Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, with five field goals and five extra points, is the only player who has scored more than Hartley at this point in the preseason.
Aside from field goals, Hartley has been spending time booting kickoffs, which punter Thomas Morstead mostly handles. One of Hartley’s six kickoffs so far was a touchback, and returns on four others were stopped behind the opposing 25. One, against the Chiefs, was returned 79 yards, a lapse in coverage that resulted in an emphasis on special teams defending in the days ahead of the Oakland game.
Hartley said he’s enjoyed kicking off because it’s kept him in games longer, and it isn’t something he’s done much since he was in college at Oklahoma. But he is aware that his primary responsibility with the Saints lies elsewhere.
“I know my role on this team,” Hartley said. “And it’s to go out there and get points.”
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