The ball wasn’t even midway into its journey through the conditioned air of Allegiant Stadium when Raiders’ kicker Daniel Carlson turned to A.J. Cole and let him know just how good the kick felt coming off his foot.
“He just looked at me and goes, ‘I smoked that one,’” recalls Cole, the Raiders’ punter and the holder for Carlson.
Such a break from the normal routine, which occurred on a 50-yard field goal during a preseason win over the Patriots, was so out of character that Carlson and Cole cracked up as they celebrated with teammates and trotted back to the sideline.
But it can also be seen as a sign of the confidence Carlson has entering his fifth season and coming off two consecutive years of leading the league in scoring.
It hasn’t always been that way.
“Some guys are naturally more confident than others,” Carlson said. “I’m not one of those guys. I think I have to go out there and kind of convince myself through preparation. Even though you can be physically talented, you have to convince yourself you deserve to be out there with the best in the world. It’s a hard thing to do sometimes, but you just try to work one day at a time and prepare the best way you can so on game day, I can show up and be confident in what I’m going to do.”
He has every reason to be, as the kick against the Patriots showed. Carlson’s boot sailed through the uprights and straight into the middle of the net with plenty of distance to spare.
Perfect at home
Since the Raiders moved into their new digs two years ago, Carlson has made all 38 field goals he has attempted at home.
It’s by far the most attempts without a miss of any kicker at any single venue since the AFL-NFL merger. Al Del Greco (Vanderbilt Stadium) and Dan Carpenter (MetLife Stadium) are next on the list at 18-for-18.
“I’m just glad he’s on our team,” running back Josh Jacobs said. “He’s an incredible dude and obviously he is who he is in the kicking game. We believe in him.
“I just call him ‘Sniper’ because I feel like he never misses. That’s my dog.”
The 27-year-old Carlson is entering his prime as one of the most consistent and reliable kickers the game has seen. He’s also at his best when the game is on the line.
Carlson set an NFL record by making all nine lead-changing field goals he attempted in 2021 over the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, including a 47-yarder on the final play of the regular season that secured a postseason berth.
“We’re always confident when he goes out there,” left tackle Kolton Miller said. “It doesn’t matter the situation, I just know he’s locked in all the time. He’s a guy we can rely and lean on for sure.”
It’s a feeling not every team in the NFL can share. Kicking issues cost several teams victories in Week 1. The Colts even cut Rodrigo Blankenship after he missed a 42-yard attempt in overtime that could have won a game that instead ended in a tie.
Consistency the key
The key for Carlson is to just treat every kick the same. He hit 40 of 43 attempts last season, the second-best percentage of the three kickers who have made 40 field goals in a season in the last 80 years.
He has made himself one of the best and most reliable kickers in the league by becoming a creature of habit, including trying to connect with extra points the same way he would try to strike a 55-yard attempt.
Carlson, who forms perhaps the league’s premier special teams unit with Cole and long-snapper Trent Sieg, values the routine the group utilizes.
They try to break the monotony on the practice field and in the locker room with their hilarious conversations about wild hypotheticals – like whether it would be easier to gain or lose 20 pounds in a single day — but they take their work seriously because repetition and routine are so important to maintaining their standard.
“I think the confidence comes from preparation and practice, getting those reps and then being able to go out on game day and remember, ‘OK, this is the same thing we’ve been preparing for the last few days, few months, few years,’” Carlson said. “It’s obviously not a physical sport for us in the same way as it is for an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman, but it’s a mental game where you have to figure out what ticks for you and how you can go out with the most confidence.”
He seems to have figured it out, but it wasn’t an easy process in a career that started as a side gig in high school.
Soccer came first
Carlson’s father Hans, a former pro tennis player, had a friend at church who was the special teams coordinator at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs.
The Carlsons had just moved back to Colorado after a year in Sweden and the coach was inquiring about whether Nils, the oldest son of Hans and Jodie and a tremendous soccer player, would be interested in kicking for the school. Hans Carlson said Nils had actually stayed in Europe to play soccer, but Daniel may actually have the more powerful leg.
So then-freshman Daniel Carlson googled how to kick a field goal and watched a few YouTube videos before heading over to the football field for a tryout. After a couple impressive extra points, he accepted a spot on the team as long as he could continue playing soccer.
Carlson would attend a few minutes of football practice a week and then kick in games on Friday nights. He made the full-time switch to football as a junior, but really didn’t know how good he was until he attended the prestigious Kohl’s Kicking Academy and earned the validation of being ranked as the No. 1 kicker at the event.
“I didn’t really know what that meant, but the next week I was talking to college coaches,” he said. “That’s when I kind of knew I was pretty good.”
Carlson eventually ended up at Auburn even though his parents are Alabama alums. He is the top kicker in school history, ahead of the team’s current kicker and No. 2 all-time, his younger brother, Anders.
Daniel Carlson is the all-time leading scorer in SEC history and was a three-time all-conference performer, a legendary collegiate career that led the Minnesota Vikings to draft him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.
Setback with Vikings
That’s where his path took an unexpected turn. Carlson missed three field goals in his second career game, including two in overtime. He was released the next day,
Carlson was a few months into a marriage, unemployed and stuck in a lease in Minneapolis unsure of the next step in his career.
“There’s really no way to know how to navigate all that,” he now recalls. “But having a great support system of family and friends around to support and encourage us helped. And for me, it was just get back to work and train. Then figure out how to earn that confidence back.”
The Raiders called a month later and the rest is history.
”Obviously, it’s not fun to go through those lows at the time,” Carlson said. “But now looking back I see it helped me grow as a person and a football player more than maybe if I had just made one of those kicks and stayed on the team. I think it worked out for good, but that doesn’t take away from it. It sucked at the time.”
It also may have fueled his further quest for perfection. There was a time, particularly in college, where he would scroll through social media comments after missing a kick and let the words impact him.
“I remember one time thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe I do suck,’” he said. “But a lot of times it’s like a 12-year-old saying it to you. At this point, my value and my perception of myself isn’t through someone else’s eyes, be it on Instagram, or a fan, or a fan of the other team. It’s not always easy, but it just comes with maturity.”
Success no accident
It also comes from success, which happens through confidence, which comes from preparation. To Carlson, they are all related. It’s a philosophy shared by Cole, a Pro Bowl punter and Carlson’s holder. “I really believe confidence comes from preparation,” Cole said. “If you have confidence without the work behind it, I think that’s kind of just ignorance.
“He goes to game day and walks out on that field knowing whether the kick goes in or not, he’s done everything he possibly can to put himself in the best position to succeed.”
Still, Cole is impressed by his friend’s accomplishments.
“I’ve probably been on a field with at least half the kickers in the league and all I can say is don’t take Daniel Carlson for granted,” Cole said. “He’s one of one. There aren’t guys like him just sitting on shelves. He’s a unique player for sure, and it’s so fun to just go out there and hold for him and watch him cook.”
Typically, that means holding the ball and watching exactly where it was placed and at what angle, along with how Carlson’s foot struck it in case he has a question. Cole can usually tell whether the kick is good or not just from the sound because of how consistent their routine has become.
It’s why Carlson’s comment during that preseason game caused such a reaction between them on the field.
“Usually I just kick it and watch it go through and go high-five guys,” Carlson said.
Same thing. Every time.
Draft: Vikings, fifth round, 2018
Career stats: 111/127 FG, 134/141 XP
This content was originally published here.