The Bengals voted kicker Mike Nugent their winner of the Ed Block Courage Award and the day after it was announced Nugent had the guts to say with three games left that 2011 is not the most satisfying of his seven NFL seasons.
"If the season was over I would be able to answer that," Nugent said before Wednesday's practice. "It's not how you start but how you finish. It's big not only on a personal level, but where the team is at now."
Just 13 months removed from his ugly torn anterior cruciate in, of all things, his kicking knee, Nugent is on top of the game and the NFL. Not only does he lead the league in field-goal percentage with just two misses in 27 tries but he's shattered his career-best nine touchbacks with 31 that is tied for 12th.
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons realizes the touchbacks have ballooned because the kickoff was moved up to the 35-yard line this season. But 31 isn't nine.
"It proves he got stronger," Simmons said. "It shows how hard he worked and the resolve he showed during his rehab. There hasn't been one day he came to me and said, 'I can't go today,' or 'my knee is too tired,' or anything like that."
Nugent had already lived it in 2008 when a blown-out quad ended his three-season run with the Jets and began his bounce around the league.
"It was tough because mainly when you tear your ACL you lose your quad, which is the first thing that stops doing anything," Nugent said. "It's basically the whole offseason to get your quad back to where it was before. I felt like it was tough at times because I felt like I was a level behind everyone else. I guess if you're going to compare yourself to the other kickers. Take a few days off here and there and not fall that much behind and stay on top of that."
Nugent hit all four of his tries last Sunday against the Texans, his biggest haul as a Bengal since his five beat the Ravens back in September 2010. Since last season he's the fifth-most accurate kicker in the league at 87 percent among kickers with at least 30 field goals:
KICKERS *(Since 2010) FG FGA PCT *
Bryant, Matt; Atl 49 54 90.7
Bironas, Rob; Ten 45 50 90.0
Vinatieri, Adam; Ind 41 46 89.1
Bailey, Dan; Dal 31 35 88.6
Barth, Connor; TB 47 54 87.0
Nugent, Mike; Cin 40 46 87.0
(Courtesy of Elias)
Nugent, 29, isn't sure the injury has made him better. Simmons made the biggest difference when he opened up Nugent's foot as it hit the ball.
"I don't know. I feel like I have a little better of a mindset," Nugent said. "Focus on form a lot. It didn't change things as far as the swing."
Draft Weekend has been huge for Nugent the past few years. In 2010 the Centerville, Ohio product ended his wandering when he signed with the team his parents rooted for with season tickets before he went to college at Ohio State.
Then the one day during the draft the NFL lifted its lockout earlier this year, Nugent was able to get reacquainted with the Bengals training staff after a month hiatus and for the first time since the injury he kicked a football instead of a soccer ball. It was a 45-yard field goal but Nugent was never able to come back in and show the trainers that it didn't swell up because later that day the lockout was back in place.
"It was great at first because I had the surgery and then came back here to work with our guys here for a pretty good amount of time," Nugent said. "Once the lockout started I was just in Columbus. I stayed in Cincinnati most of the time during the lockout because I like to stick around here and kind of know the lay of the land. Working hard, join a gym and go from there."
It was tougher on the coaches.
"Imagine me sitting here not knowing if we've got a healthy kicker or not," Simmons said. "But we knew we had a guy that took it seriously and it was important to him. I never had to say a word to him. He knew it was important to us and it's his contract year."
Since Nugent had everything he needed in rehab at OSU and then was able to work with holder Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris during the summer heading into camp, he didn't become a physical casualty of the lockout like linebacker Keith Rivers, cornerback Adam Jones, and defensive tackle Pat Sims.
Nugent and Simmons bumped into each other at head coach Marvin Lewis's golf tournament in May, but Nugent dared not tell Simmons how well the knee was doing because of the lockout rules.
"I was just like refuse to go behind it or go behind the rules," Nugent said. "He probably looked at me like it wasn't swollen."
It turns out the only things that are swollen are his numbers.