Pair of field goal misses in loss to Rams seals fate
On what would be his last field-goal try as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Garrett Hartley swung his right foot through a ball that helicoptered wide left of the goalposts that were 26 yards away in St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome on Sunday.
Hartley four years earlier had booted the Saints into Super Bowl XLIV, then he helped them win their only NFL title by becoming the first player to ever kick three field goals of 40 yards or more in the league’s championship game.
But that miss on Sunday — his second in a numbing 27-16 loss to a Rams team that was 5-8 — was the shortest of the 19 he’s had in his roller-coaster of an NFL career. It was his eighth this season, in which he’s 22-of-30 and ranks among the least accurate kickers in the league. And it was his 11th as a pro from between that distance and 38 yards, considered chip-shot range.
Saints coach Sean Payton had seen all he could stomach. The team (10-4) unceremoniously waived Hartley, opting to not make a statement and just let the NFL’s transaction wire reveal the decision on Tuesday. The coach, though, did schedule an unusually-early 8:30 a.m. news conference for Wednesday.
Attempts to contact Hartley on Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful. However, reached by telephone, his mother, Frances, said, “God won’t give (Garrett) anything he can’t handle — one game at a time, and we’ll continue moving forward.
“I wish the Saints all the luck in the world, and I hope they go all the way,” Frances Hartley said. “They’re a great team.”
Before getting off the phone, she added, “(Garrett) is a great kicker. He’s an even greater person.”
There was no official word Tuesday on who would replace Hartley, who had been on the Saints since 2008 and went 82-of-101 — 81.2 percent — on his field goal attempts with New Orleans. Fox Sports 1’s Mike Garafolo published a report Tuesday night that the Saints would sign veteran free-agent kicker Shayne Graham, who had worked out for New Orleans alongside four others in November amidst a stretch in which Hartley had missed four of six kicks he tried between Weeks 8 and 10 of this season.
Multiple league sources by late Tuesday morning had told The Advocate that the Saints had not contacted the four other kickers who were evaluated in November: Neil Rackers, John Potter, Derek Dimke and Brandon McManus. The Advocate could not get the same information about Graham, and he was the only one who could not be included in that list.
Graham is a 14-year veteran who’s played in 155 career games for eight different teams, going 245-for-287 (85.4 percent) in that time. He last kicked in a game as a member of the Texans in 2012, when he was 31-of-38 on field goals for Houston. Coincidentally, the Saints were the first team to sign him as an undrafted free agent in 2000, when they were under the command of coach Jim Haslett.
As for Hartley, Tuesday marked the end of a tenure with the Saints that saw him get suspended, benched, hurt, cut — and, through all of that, emerge as a civic hero for the ages in New Orleans as well as a Super Bowl champion.
Hartley joined the NFL in 2008, when he signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent. Denver cut him prior to training camp, and he was out of the league until the Saints let go of kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and signed Hartley in late October that year.
Hartley was perfect on his 13 field goal attempts as a rookie.
In 2009, Hartley tested positive for the banned stimulant Adderall and was suspended for four games. John Carney kicked for the Saints the first 11 contests that year; but then New Orleans activated Hartley, and he nailed four field goals — including an 18-yarder in overtime — to help the Saints win 33-30, their 12th consecutive victory that season.
When the Saints hosted the NFC Championship Game against Minnesota, he buried a 40-yard kick in overtime to lift New Orleans to a 31-28 victory over the Vikings and propel them to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
In Miami, Hartley made field goals of 44, 46 and 47 yards, and the Saints beat Indianapolis 31-17 to capture New Orleans’ first major pro sports championship less than five years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city.
Then came the fall.
Hartley began the 2010 season 4-for-7. The Saints benched him for two games and used Carney.
Among the misses that got Hartley subbed out is one some Saints fans won’t ever forgive him for: a 29-yarder in overtime that would have defeated the Atlanta Falcons.
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, who needed just a 7-9 record to win their division.
Nonetheless, the Saints gave Hartley his job back, and he closed out the campaign by going 16-of-18, or 88.9 percent.
He sat out 2011 with a hip injury he sustained in a preseason exhibition. In 2012, he returned and enjoyed a rare, uneventful year, going 18-for-22, or 81.8 percent, six-tenths of a point above his career average.
This year, Hartley started off above-average. He had a last-second game-winner at Tampa Bay in Week 2 from 27 yards out. He made all four of his tries at Chicago three weeks later to help the Saints win at Soldier Field for the first time in four outings there under Payton.
But it wasn’t perfect. He missed two field goals in the Saints’ first six games before missing four in the following three contests, prompting New Orleans to hold work outs before giving Hartley another shot.
In typical fashion, he capped the week dramatically, connecting on three field goals in the last 7:50 of a 23-20 win over the 49ers on Nov. 17. Among them was a game-tying kick with 2:06 left and a walk-off winner as time expired.
There were no indications that the Rams game would be Hartley’s last as a Saint. But, after a New Orleans touchdown was negated by an illegal-use-of-hands penalty on left tackle Charles Brown, Hartley drove a 36-yard kick low. It was blocked by ex-LSU standout Michael Brockers with 2 seconds left in the first half, at which point St. Louis led 24-3.
After the Saints trimmed the deficit to 27-16, Hartley booted an onside kick that New Orleans recovered. But it was inconsequential — the drive ended with his 26-yard miss.
Payton subsequently passed up chances to give Hartley a vote of confidence. In response to a question about whether he’d consider a change at kicker on Monday, the coach said, “I think we’re looking closely at every element, ... looking closely at each aspect of this team.”
The Saints at that point were six days away from visiting divisional rival Carolina (10-4). With a win, they’d ensure the NFC South pennant, the No. 2 seed in their conference and home-field advantage in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Yet Payton still thought it was best to get rid of Hartley, who is 8-of-8 for his career in the postseason.
Shortly after the news about Hartley spread, Saints punter Thomas Morstead logged onto his Twitter account and wished his teammate “all the best in his future.”
“His foot helped us win a Superbowl,” Morstead wrote.
SAINTS ALSO CUT CARR: The Saints on Tuesday also cut backup cornerback Chris Carr, who’s played in 11 games this season.
It was not immediately known who’d replace him.