This is the second of a two-part series by Andrew LeRay on the Jets' kicking game. Today: The Placekickers.
Special teams are a battleground in this year's Jets training camp. In addition to two punters vying for one job, there are two placekickers attempting to secure a spot on the roster. The candidates, incumbent Nick Folk and journeyman Nick Novak, have both established themselves as NFL-quality options.
Both have kicked well in training camp, and both will take on the enigmatic winds of New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday night against the Bengals.
"It's a good, solid competition," said Westhoff. "I think it's actually been fairly even. Nick [Folk] I think started lower, but has since picked his game up the most. Whereas the other Nick actually started a bit better, but he's leveled off a bit. It's interesting."
Since entering the league in 2005, Novak has kicked for five NFL teams. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Redskins, he has also spent time with the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and a preseason stint with the San Diego Chargers, in addition to kicking in NFL Europe for the Cologne Centurions and last season in the UFL for the Florida Tuskers.
"There's no pressure," said Novak. "This is the exact opportunity that I want. This particular camp is what every kicker wants, to come in and try to win a job."
Novak has been around the proverbial block before, and knows exactly what he needs to do to stick with the Jets long after camp breaks today.
"Being consistent in that mid-range, and continuing to get better hang time on my kickoffs," he said. "To tell you the truth, I don't even look at Nick's field goals. When he's up, I don't look. When I'm up, that's all I'm paying attention to, all I'm focused on."
The nomadic Novak recognizes the strength of the competition, and although he may not watch Folk during his kicks in practice, there is a mutual respect between the two.
"When we're done working, we pick each other's brains," said Novak. "We work together and help each other get better. It's a true competition. Both of us are very competitive, but we're friends."
Folk is returning after a season in which he converted 30 of 39 field goal attempts, and all 37 of his extra points. He was successful on a number of clutch kicks, including in Week 9, when he tied the Lions with no time left in regulation, then kicking the gamewinner in overtime.
Most memorably, Folk eliminated the Colts in the AFC Wild Card Game, booting a 32-yarder as time expired to send the Jets to a 17-16 victory.
"I just have to be myself," said Folk. "That's all I can control is how I'm kicking. I'm not worried about how Nick's doing. I'm doing a pretty good job right now."
While Novak is looking for consistency in the outcome of his kicks, Folk believes he can alleviate future problems with a dose of preventative medicine.
"You want to make every kick, whether it be a 60-yard field goal or an extra point, look the same mechanically. That's the consistency I'm looking for. It's hard because when you get back longer, you want to give it a little more, so you change a little something. But you don't want to do that unless you really need to. You want to make them all look like each other."
Consistently drilling field goals is only half of the equation. With the NFL advancing the position of the ball on kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, Westhoff is looking for a kicker who can help prevent the opposition from achieving beneficial field position.
"Well, I haven't seen us be able to kick it out of the end zone yet," said Westhoff. "There are times when you want to do it. My philosophy going in is we're going to hit it where the wind is blowing, like we always do, but we're also going to be prepared to cover. Now, if that results in a touchback, well, then, fine. If not, we want to keep them inside the 20."
Novak said the rule change has indeed altered his kickoff approach. He's taking a methodical mentality rather than simply letting it fly.
"My expectations are to get it to the minus-5 and not have any kicks outside the end zone," he said. "I want to make sure I emphasize distance and location. I want it to be on the numbers, or somewhere in between the numbers and the sidelines."
Folk agreed but hasn't decided what the best theory is just yet.
"You can really try to drive one and get one with a little less hang time, a little more distance," he said. "Or you can keep the hang time up there, put it on the goal line, and see if we can get them inside the 20. Right now I'm just trying to hit a good overall ball. When we get down to game-planning for the regular season, we'll go from there."
Westhoff believes both kickers could start and be successful right now, and both have proven that in the past. The end result of the competition will hinge mostly on results from the remaining three preseason games.
No matter what the result is, Novak doesn't foresee the Jets having any issues at the positions this season.
"I feel like if Nick wins the job, he'll have a Pro Bowl season," Novak said. "If I win the job, I feel like I'll have that type of season as well. That's the truth."