BENGAKLS K EVAN McPHERSON VS. RAVENS K JUSTIN TUCKER
McPherson, the popular boy-next-door with the friendly neighborhood Tyrannosaurus rex leg, no longer wears a watch to keep tabs on his pulse.
And why would he? After coming through with some of the most palpitating field goals in Bengals history last year as a rookie, he didn't even have to catch his breath in the first month of this season to pick up where he left off with the longest field goal in team history from 59 yards to go along with a 58-yarder and a 57-yarder.
Next to the Falcons' Younghoe Koo (16-18), McPherson (12-14) is the second-most accurate kicker from 50 and beyond in history with double-digit attempts.
All of which sets up a nervy rematch with one of his childhood role models in Tucker, the Ravens future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, set for Sunday night's (8:20-Cincinnati's Channel 5) AFC North showdown that has had its share of cardiac finishes.
Call it Hall of Flame vs. Hall of Fame.
McPherson is coming off his third AFC Special Teams Player of the week in his 20th career game, but Tucker, 32, in his 11th season, offers some worthy targets. As the most accurate kicker of all-time (91.2 percent), Tucker has 12 of those weekly awards.
"He was one of those guys you looked to and heard about," says McPherson, a product of the elite youth kicking camps. "He was a guy who was often a topic of conversation."
So is the 23-year-old McPherson, matching up pretty well with Tucker's first 20 games in the league. They have the same amount of field goals (37), although Tucker's percentage is slightly better with 42 attempts to McPherson's 44. Tucker gets him on kicks between the 40s (12-16 compared to McPherson's 9-13).
But Money Mac hits the jackpot from 50. That 12 of 14 (regular season only) dwarfs Tucker's four of five in the much different world of 2012-13. Both are 3-for-3 from 50 this season.
"When Justin came into the league, it was an anomaly for a kicker to be consistent from 50," McPherson says. "Now it's like we're expected to make every kick on our side of the field."
When McPherson nailed a 57-yarder Thursday night against Miami for his 12th career field goal of at least 50 yards, he tied Blair Walsh for the quickest to do it in just his 20th game. Walsh broke into the league in the same 2012 season as Tucker.
In the fourth week of that season, there were 12 tries of 50 and eight makes, including two 57s, a 58 and a 60 with the average 54. Last week, the fourth week of 2022, it was 8-for-11 (average 55), with among the makes McPherson's 57,Tucker's 51 and New Orleans' Will Lutz's 60. Lutz's double doink off a 61 try almost made the game in London against the Vikings the first in history with two 60-yarders.
Well, there's always Mac-Tucker.
If you want to see the real growth, go back to when McPherson was born in 1999. That was Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' second year as an assistant special teams coach, his first with the Panthers after a year working with the first Ravens kicking staple, Matt Stover. In that fourth week there were three tries from 50 and the one made was by Jason Elam from 51.
"The position has become so much more specialized and efficient, they just don't miss as much anymore from any spot on the field looking at the success rate from long distance," Simmons says. "You become accustomed to those things. It's expectations. You have a special guy to do it and you see it over and over again and that becomes the expectation.
"(Tucker) was one of the first to do it from that distance consistently and he's been tried and true throughout time," Simmons says. "He's one of the greatest to ever play. It's his consistency. The guy doesn't hit a bad ball very often. He's detail-oriented and has a tight focus. He's got a new holder this year and a new (long) snapper and you don't see any effect."
McPherson's trials and tribulations with his long snapper in this year's opener has been well documented. He had the winning extra point blocked and the 29-yarder in overtime pulled badly left with an emergency snapper. But with rookie Cal Adomotis pulled off the practice squad the next week, McPherson has drilled two of his 50s and has missed just once, a 41-yarder that sailed left in New York for his first miss ever on the road.
"With the new snapper he's been fine. It's been solid," Simmons says. "He didn't have a very good hit up in New York but it wasn't because of the snap. They've been working together since the spring and summer."
McPherson shed the heart-rate watch because he didn't like the feel of anything on his wrist. But he figures his pulse was somewhere in the 140s last Thursday night when he hit that huge 57-yarder that gave them a 20-15 lead with 6:13 left.
"I just feel like now I've got a better bead on it. I don't need it," McPherson says. "That's pretty high, but maybe not for that environment. The big thing is not being excited before you go out there."
Adomitis, the new snapper who quietly has two 50s under his belt, says McPherson has been a big help with how to prepare for the kick on the sidelines.
"How to stay calm," Adomitis says. "How to use the time on the sidelines when you're not doing anything in a good way and keep your mind in a good spot on game day. Stay locked into the game, but in order to perform your best you have to find a way to be kind of engaged, but also relaxed."
This is why Simmons made McPherson the only kicker drafted in 2021. Well, besides the lethal weapon on his hip. He always looks to be the guy bobbing happily on a life preserver in a sea of calamity.
"He knows the importance of each kick, but he doesn't live and die with each kick," Simmons says. "And he's as competitive as hell."
Adomitis can speak to that because McPherson has been lately lording over the ping-pong table nearest the specialists, still the ultra-competitive freshman at Fort Payne High School providing his first overtime heroic with a header that gave his team the Alabama 6A state soccer title.
That's another reason Simmons took him. Pretty even-headed guy not full of himself. That's proven to hold true even as his popularity has soared as an NFL playoff hero. (Remember, his 14-for-14 in the playoffs don't count in the regular season.)
One day this week as he was walking out of the locker room, he ran into a wide-eyed student journalist at Paycor Stadium covering an event and the kid's mouth remained open as McPherson stopped to Dap him up.
"I just Dapped with the best kicker in the NFL," the guy managed to say a few minutes later.
"That was like the day at the Mason football camp last summer," says Simmons, whose son Weston is one of the brightest Comets. "He was obviously the center of attention, but he was humble and he stayed until every kid who wanted an autograph got one."
McPherson shrugs. This is how he was raised. Never boast. This is the same guy who got married this past summer to his girlfriend since ninth grade. Their first date was a movie ("don't ask me what it was") and the save the date with Gracie turned out to be what his soccer coach, Tom Shanklin, called Fort Payne's wedding of the decade.
"Maybe of the century," Shanklin says. "The church seats 600 and they were overflowing in the waiting rooms."
But … same guy.
"I bust his chops. I sent him a text after he missed the 41-yarder," Shanklin says. "After the opener, I was like the mentor. Then, I busted his chops. I texted, 'I can't have you missing field goals.' And he sent one back, "You're right."
Same guy. From Opening Day chaos to a meeting with Tucker on the oasis a month later. The big difference is he's got a house with Gracie after they spent his rookie year apart.
"It's a good difference just based off the mental side of the game," McPherson says. "There's somebody home and you're not coming into a place that's empty and quiet all the time. I've been enjoying coming home and having somebody to talk to. Always somebody there to pick you up and dust you off."
There hasn't been much to dust off. Same guy. Here's one of the most famous guys in Cincinnati saying his biggest brush with greatness is texting with Tucker and meeting with him before games.
"He sent me a text during the playoffs congratulating me," McPherson says, "and I sent him one when he signed his extension."
Tucker, though, is one kicker McPherson couldn't emulate. He doesn't think anybody can.
"His steps are not typical kicker steps," McPherson says. "He has extra steps going back in his stance. When he goes back and gets set, he has an extra motion. When he gets back there, he takes a few steps and then gets the nod."
McPherson says after that, everything is pretty similar.
"Some guys go from foot to shoulder and extend to the ball," McPherson says. "There are others that are more fast twitch. Speed. Justin is one of the guys that just whips it through. (The leg) doesn't go really high. Just whips it. At that point, it's a matter of preference. The whip leg is where you get more power."
McPherson says he's a whip leg guy. Simmons compares it to golf where "it's like club speed. The faster you get the club to the ball, the further it goes."
Tucker has a history against the Bengals. He made his debut against them in the 2012 opener and kicked a harbinger with all three tries. He set an NFL record against them when he pounded three 50s in a half. Two of his 18 winning field goals have come against the Bengals. You may think he always kills them, making 37 of his 41 attempts. But it's second to his massive 50 of 52 against the Steelers for 96 percent.
And he's engaged in a kickoff with Matt Prater for most career 50s. Prater has 66 on 74.2 percent, Tucker 51 on 73.9 percent. At 85.7 percent, McPherson is poised for a run at history.
Simmons paused when asked if McPherson is the most famous kicker in a city he's ever seen.
"At the moment, I think maybe the guy in Baltimore," Simmons says. "But it's fun to be watching this."