It’s a football cliché that special teams is often the difference between winning and losing, particularly in tight games, but this mantra, that was so aggressively drilled into my impressionable teenage head by a thud and blunder-inclined coach a few years ago, rang true in several games over Wildcard Weekend. But one of the most dramatic special teams plays was one, or rather several, that never happened, ones that only exist in the negative, important and influential by their absence, rather than they’re presence; I am, of course, referring to the injury to Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski that thrust upon the brightest stage of all one Michael “Big Balls” Dickson.
He is a rookie punter from,
The shores of far Sydney.
He took the place of old man Jon,
Made plays you’d want to see.
Dickson – and, remarkably, I can refer to him as such with complete sincerity and without reference to his glorious nickname – is a rookie punter, whose circuitous journey to the NFL took him from an Australian Rules university team, through a senior side’s reserve team and the famous Prokick Australia kicking school, to the University of Texas and, ultimately, the NFL. A fine punter, having honed his desperately specific craft in a game built predominantly around an action considered mundane by most casual NFL observers, he won the Ray Guy Award in 2017, and was the 149th overall pick in last year’s draft, tapped to replace long-serving veteran ball-booter Jon Ryan.
But just as Ryan’s most infamous moment came not with his leg, but his arm, throwing a touchdown pass off a fake field goal in the 2014 playoffs to catapult the Seahawks to their second Super Bowl appearance in as many years, Dickson shot to fame, and perhaps infamy, earlier this season because of what he was doing beyond mere punting.
Backed up in his own endzone as the Seahawks looked to protect a two-score lead in Week 8 against the Lions, Dickson was instructed to take an intentional safety, giving the Lions two points in exchange for burning a few seconds off the clock, as Sam Koch had done masterfully in Super Bowl 47. But Dickson had other ideas, and instead took off with the ball, much to the surprise of both the Lions and his own teammates, and scampered nine yards downfield to pick up a first down and keep the ball in Seattle hands; Dickson’s fellow Seahawks then bestowed upon him the nickname that forms the headline, and, frankly entire premise, of this very article.
The Seahawks would go on to win 28-14, and ultimately squeak into the playoffs as the number five seed, with their rookie punter earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honours.
He looked upon the rotting leg,
And drew his eyes away;
He looked upon his kicking boot,
And there the team’s hope lay.
When Janikowski went down with a leg injury, tweaking his hamstring as he attempted a needless field goal with time ticking away in the first half, I can only imagine an eerie hush fell over the Seahawks sideline. At that point, the game was not only close, with Dallas holding a four-point lead, but looked like it would remain close for the duration; with both teams boasting fierce running attacks, stout defences, and aerial attacks relying a little too much on the Cole Beasleys of this world, this looked all the world like the kind of 9-10 slug-fest the Seahawks had scraped out of in the 2015 Wildcard Round. That game had come down to a last-second field goal, which Vikings kicker Blair Walsh shanked left in the frigid Minnesota air, so the Seahawks were well acquainted with exactly the kind of close, gritty games this one was turning out to be.
And they were without the man who had accounted for all of their points thus far; and, looking ahead briefly, it is perhaps not inconsequential that the Seahawks ended up losing this game by a margin so fine that it would have been overcome with a successful field goal.
With Janikowski out, Dickson trotted onto the JerryWorld field to practice field goals at half time, and displayed an impressive ability, for a man professionally employed to kick footballs, to not kick a football very accurately. Compounding matters was the sudden scramble for a backup holder to set up the kicks; Dickson had put the ball down for Janikowski’s kicks in the first half, but he couldn’t be both holder and kicker, so the Seahawks had their foolish lack of holder depth cruelly exposed.
This also set the stage for what would, or maybe could, have been one of the most ironic knives to the heart in football history. A shoddy holder entrusted with setting up a game-winning field goal? A game-winning field goal in the dying seconds of a playoff game? A playoff game featuring the Seahawks and the Cowboys? This was Tony Romo in the 2016 Wildcard Round all over again, but with the boot very much on the other foot; for a time I hoped, and equally hoped against, Russell Wilson being entrusted to hold on a game-winning kick in the closing minutes, only to fumble the snap, try to run it in, and be dragged down by Leighton Vander Esch at the one-yard line. Dallas would have erupted. Wilson would have been broken. And somewhere in a CBS booth, Tony Romo would wipe a tear from his eye and smile down on America’s Team.
But this did not come to pass – not even the Football Gods were so cruel – and the Seahawks rolled on, scoring two second half touchdowns, and successfully tacking on two points both times, to cut the Dallas lead to just two points with 78 seconds left. While Dickson hadn’t been trusted to kick so much as an extra point, let alone a field goal, until now, there was one kickoff remaining, and there was no-one on the Seahawks roster who could do it other than Big Balls himself.
“O shrieve me, shrieve me, Ozzie man!”
The head coach threw his hat.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of kick art that?”
Dickson had used what the NFL considers an unconventional kicking technique for all of his second half kickoffs, opting for drop-kicks rather than the more conventional kicks from a tee on the ground. While these kicks are common in sports like Australian Rules, they are made more difficult in the NFL due to the sleeker, pointier ball, which makes it easier to throw and catch, but harder to accurately bounce off the ground and strike with a foot.
So when Dickson took to the field for what would be the final time this season, he aimed to delicately lift the ball over the waiting Cowboys hands team, aiming it precisely ten yards from where he stood, trying to land it point-down, so as to make it bounce into the air to give his teammates a chance to recover it.
But the kick was well off; the ball soared high and far, into the waiting arms of an unmarked Cowboy, who immediately curled to the ground in the foetal position to protect the precious ball. Onside kicks are all but impossible in the NFL now due to well-intentioned rule changes – here I would usually wail in favour of the Schiano Proposal, but that is a topic for another post – but there was a particular uselessness to Dickson’s blustery boot into the Dallas air, a hopelessly overdone meal, the failure of which is impressive beyond the fact that it was cooked in a field in Derbyshire over a Trangia.
So the Seahawks went home, their first one-and-done of the implausibly successful Russell Wilson era. While it’s hard to place too much blame at the feet of a man asked to play decidedly out of position, this is a sad end for a team and a player that were so impressive for so much of the season; we can but hope, for the sake of the quality of play and the number of hilariously ostentatious nicknames floating around the league, that Seattle and Big Balls Dickson are back stronger next year.