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All eyes are on Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher

Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) reacts after missing a point after touchdown kick in the first half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
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Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) reacts after missing a point after touchdown kick in the first half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.

A lot of eyes will be on Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher as the team plays the 49ers in a divisional round playoff game on Sunday in San Francisco.

Maher is headed into what many expect to be a close game after a historically bad game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, missing four extra points. The difference in the 49ers game could come down to a field goal. With the team's possible Super Bowl run at stake, many fans wonder if Maher will bounce back.

West Texan Tony Franklin, a former NFL kicker, is quick to defend Maher, noting he overheard diners at a restaurant criticizing the 33-year-old Dallas kicker. He said he felt compelled to say something to them.

"I said 'have any of ya'll ever gone out and tried to kick a field goal or extra point in a National Football League game?' And they said 'no.' And I said — 'well — I have. And I was a kicker. And I know what it's like,' " he told Texas Public Radio. "Until ya'll have done it, you need to get off his back and leave him alone.' "

Maher is now retired to his ranch near Junction, Texas. The former barefooted kicker played for the Texas A&M Aggies and later the Eagles, Patriots, and Dolphins of the NFL from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

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Franklin said he saw what happened to Maher in the game.

"I just think he was dropping his right shoulder a little bit. When you drop your right shoulder, you kick the ball to the right, and then he over compensated. If you're leaning too far left, you have a tendency to dip your left shoulder, and it makes you pull the ball to the left," he said. "But the last one, his shoulders were perfect."

Franklin believes Maher will watch game video and make the adjustments he needs to make as a professional player and be ready for the 49ers, especially with his coaches and teammates supporting him.

"I think it's important that they've shown confidence in him. They went ahead just in case, I know, and signed a guy to the kick on the practice squad. But I think he'll bounce back fine," he said. "And it wouldn't surprise me to see him make a field goal to beat the 49ers this weekend."

While many fans believe kickers follow superstitions, like wearing certain socks to be successful, it's really about finding grace under fire.

Former University of Texas at San Antonio kicker Hunter Duplessis, now with the XFL's Houston Roughnecks, said kickers rely on routine to calm nerves and improve performance.

"Routine in a sense of maybe you get three warmup kicks before you go out on the field every time," he said. "Maybe you take one really deep breath. Things like that help them focus on their craft."

Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) kicks a point after touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.
Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports
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X06796
Jan 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Dallas Cowboys place kicker Brett Maher (19) kicks a point after touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half during the wild card game at Raymond James Stadium.

Athletes can get back on track with the help of a licensed sports psychologist. Dr. Julie Wiernik, owner of the Texas Center for Sports Psychology in San Antonio, helps players make adjustments to deal with the symptoms of mental and physical stress that interfere with what she calls a "critical moment of performance," like making an extra point.

"So, at that moment, what is he getting distracted with?" she said. "Either he is physically getting really worked up or mentally getting worked up."

Wiernik agrees routine, like breathing exercises and muscle relaxation, is the answer to a lot of stressors and not superstitions, which she does not endorse at all. She joked when she asked what they would do if their lucky socks get "eaten by your dog."

Dr. John Land, an associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said sports psychologists work to get athletes to perform their feats like many of us tie our shoes.

"Your brain, your body does automatically control it without you thinking about the steps. So, that's the way it has to be in sports with these highly trained skills. We have to get them, the brain and body, to control it sort of automatically. And so, we have to get them to stop thinking too much about how to execute that action."

Franklin said a lot of kicking is mental.

'Kicking is six inches between the ears, brother. That's the difference," he said. "You just have to go out there. You can't go out on to the field at any point in time with any self doubts because if you do, you're just opening yourself up to missing your kick. You have to go out there with confidence every single time."

Franklin said everyone can have a bad game, even seven-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady, who the Cowboys beat last Monday.

"Look how bad Brady looked the other night. Dallas' defense was responsible for most of it, but he could not hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle."

Let's face it — we can all have a bad day at the office. A football player's office just happens to be a field. According to these experts, it's how you recover that matters. Let's see how Brett Maher does this Sunday.

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Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Brian Kirkpatrick has been a journalist in Texas most of his life, covering San Antonio news since 1993, including the deadly October 1998 flooding, the arrival of the Toyota plant in 2003, and the base closure and realignments in 2005.