© Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Of his 325 career makes and 13 game-winners, Robbie Gould’s most memorable kick came last season against Tennessee.
It was Week 15, and the 49ers had won two straight behind newly acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Gould had made field goals of 50 and 48 yards earlier in the fourth quarter, but the Titans took a one-point lead with 1:07 remaining. Before San Francisco’s final drive, Garoppolo and Gould discussed his target yard line, which he wouldn’t publicly disclose.
Garoppolo led the 49ers 48 yards, giving Gould a 45-yard try with three seconds left on the clock. He thwacked the ball toward the right goal post, playing to his natural draw, and the ball steered between the uprights and well beyond the crossbar. It was his sixth made kick of the day.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 18, 2017
“I think Robbie’s playing as good as anyone I’ve had,” head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters postgame. “When he goes out there, I never think he’s going to miss it. He’s been automatic.”
With that game-winner, Gould became the first kicker in NFL history to make 15 field goals over a three-game span. He highlights that kick because of the circumstances defining San Francisco’s season at the time: the 0-9 start, three-game winning streak, and a growing sense of optimism surrounding the 49ers, despite their playoff impossibilities.
Two games earlier, Gould made five field goals — scoring all of San Francisco’s 15 points— against the Chicago Bears, the team that released him 15 months earlier, including the game-winner.
Without those two game-winning kicks, the 49ers’ historically odd season changes. There is no 5-0 ending; perhaps 4-1 or 3-2. Garoppolo’s glistening resume is blemished. A productive 2018 free agency period may end differently.
The pressure of those kicks, and the small windows of opportunity, have defined Gould’s career.
“I thought it was my friends prank-calling me”
Before he was a first-team All-Pro or the Chicago Bears’ all-time leading scorer, Gould struggled to land an NFL job.
During his rookie season in 2005, he was waived from the New England Patriots’ and Baltimore Ravens’ practice squads. He returned to his hometown of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and picked up a job as a construction worker so he could pay his own bills. He lived with his parents.
Gould’s daily routine was regimented: work from 6:30 a.m. until 3:30 or 4 p.m., train, kick, sleep. He was confident he would get another shot in the NFL, but he had no idea when it would come.
In early October of 2005, the Bears called his construction company to offer him a tryout.
“I thought it was my friends prank-calling me,” Gould said.
He expected teams to contact his agent. Cell phones had not yet been popularized. Gould hung up the phone, but the same number called back, and a Bears representative convinced him this was real.
Gould flew to Chicago that Thursday night, Oct. 6, and tried out Friday morning. He beat out five other kickers auditioning for the job, passed a physical, signed a contract before his 12:30 p.m. practice, bought a suit later that afternoon, and boarded a plane Saturday ahead of Chicago’s Week 5 matchup in Cleveland.
In a business with 32 jobs, opportunities come and go quickly.
“I was just lucky to get my shot earlier than some other guys,” Gould said. “You had to wait your turn, wait your opportunity.”
Gould missed one of two attempts in his NFL debut. He made 78 percent of his kicks his rookie year, ranking 23rd in the league. But he entered his second career season as the frontrunner for Chicago’s starting kicking job, and he emerged as the most accurate kicker in the league, connecting on 89 percent of his field goals. He was named a first-team All-Pro. Gould achieved all his individual goals, but the Bears fell just short of theirs, losing to the Indianapolis Colts, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
Thriving under pressure
Despite his early success, Gould was still learning the intricacies of the profession. To this day, he has never had a kicking coach. He grew up as a soccer player and started kicking as a high school junior. It came naturally. He later walked onto the Penn State football squad — he had asked his high school principal to recommend him to legendary coach Joe Paterno — and ultimately finished as the school’s fifth-most prolific scorer of all-time.
“In college, you don’t know what to look for,” Gould said. “You are not really groomed because there aren’t a lot of kicking coaches in college. Now, I go through what the ball is doing, as opposed to, ‘OK, I am going to hit this and hope to God it goes in.’”
It took Gould the first six or seven years of his professional career to really understand kicking. Gould started aiming for specific targets, which did not necessarily mean focusing within the goalposts. Sometimes, he learned, aim outside of the upright and trust either your draw or the wind to swing the ball back to the middle.
During his stint with New England, he worked with special teams coordinator Brad Seely, who recommended Gould switch from a three-step to two-step routine to consolidate his approach.
“That really changed my entire career,” Gould said.
Every offseason, Gould worked with his younger brother, Chris, who is now an assistant special teams coach with Denver. They practiced on Arena League goalposts, which span nine feet wide, contrary to the 18-foot, six-inch-wide NFL goalposts. The brothers watched film together, dissecting technique and studying how the ball flies differently at opposite ends of Soldier Field, one of the toughest places to kick because of its swirling winds.
For a profession with a singular objective, perfecting it is anything but simple.
“It’s never different if you’re not in a dome,” Gould says.
Consider all the physical factors with a less tangible one: pressure. Kickers are either heroes or scapegoats. They are defined by their late-game fortunes. And if they do not connect on at least four of every five attempts on average, they are likely unemployed.
“I love (the pressure),” Gould said. “It’s one of the things I look forward to the most. Those are situations that in this position you have to embrace, and if you don’t embrace it, it’s going to get the most of you and you probably won’t have a long career.”
Gould doesn’t compartmentalize ‘pressure kicking’ solely in the fourth quarter. A make or miss in the first half affects play-calling and field position for the rest of the game, he says.
He thrived under ‘traditional’ pressure throughout his 11 years with Chicago. He made 11 game-winning kicks. One of his most memorable came in the 2007 NFC Divisional Round, his first full season as a pro, against the Seattle Seahawks. Gould made a 49-yarder in overtime to lift the Bears to their first NFC Championship Game since 1988.
Gould became Chicago’s all-time leading scorer when he recorded his 1,118th point on Oct. 11, 2015. He is also the franchise’s most accurate kicker ever. He shrugs off the accomplishments, but he admits it’s “pretty special” to go down in the record books alongside legends such as Walter Payton and Super Bowl-winning place-kicker Kevin Butler.
“To be named in same category of those guys is something I will always remember,” Gould said.
But the Bears released him one week before the 2016 season kicked off. A shaky preseason, combined with the $3.5 million he was set to earn in 2016, convinced management to choose the younger, cheaper option: Connor Barth, who is now a free agent.
Gould was surprised by the news, but he understands it’s a business. This time around, he had to wait just five weeks to be picked up. The New York Giants signed Gould to a one-year deal. He made all 10 of his kicks in 2016 but was not re-signed after the season.
“The day I lose that edge is the day I know it’s time”
On March 9, 2017, Gould inked a two-year deal with the 49ers. His best season followed.
Last year, Gould made a league-leading 39 field goals and missed just two, yielding a 95.1 percent make rate. He connected on all four of his attempts of 50 yards or more. Gould, an obsessive film-student, remembers the specifics of all 41 kicks.
Entering his 14th career season, Gould, 35, is the fifth-most accurate kicker of all-time, with a career 86.9 percent make rate. He does not feel like the oldest 49ers player on the roster.
“I am having the best camp I have ever had in my entire career,” Gould said. “It’s been a very easy transition here.”
Much of that has to do with the culture Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have established. Gould dubs San Francisco’s locker room as the closest he has ever experienced. One of the ways he asserts himself among his teammates is giving special-teams players intel on kickoff coverages.
“I love talking about (schemes),” Gould said. “For me, those are things that keep me still in it.”
Gould’s training routine has not changed much throughout the years, but he now focuses even more on quality over quantity. He rarely attempts more than 45 kicks per practice. He charts all of them to compare with past years.
“I have learned that if you have a bad day,” Gould says, “it should make you mad, and it should motivate you for the next session you kick.”
On off days, Gould kicks with his five-year-old son. He attempts seven or eight kicks as a way of staying sharp while incorporating family time. After occasional training camp practices, Gould stays on the field for about 30 minutes to play with his two sons, Griffin and Gavin.
“Those are the things you remember,” Gould says.
But father time has not yet hobbled Gould, who is coming off the best season of his career. Throughout his meandering path, from college walk-on, to part-time construction worker, to one of the most successful NFL kickers of this generation, Gould has stayed highly motivated. Year 14 is no different, whether he’s finding daily challenges or envisioning a Super Bowl victory, the lone accomplishment that has eluded him.
“I am a competitor at everything I do,” Gould said. “I don’t want to just win. I want to literally embarrass you. That’s just how I think. That’s what makes me the kicker that I am. I am always finding something to motivate me.
The day I lose that edge is the day I know it’s time.”
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow him on Twitter @Bradalmquist13.