On Monday, Sam Ficken was working at a brokerage firm in Greenwich, Conn. and had just passed his Series 57 exam.
Fast forward to Thursday, and now Ficken is the L.A. Rams kicker — square in the middle of a playoff race, replacing arguably the best kicker in the league, and answering questions at his new locker.
“Kind of a crazy couple of days,” Ficken said.
It’s been that way for the Rams, too, who lost Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein to a season-ending back injury on Sunday. Special teams coordinator John Fassel said he was devastated for Zuerlein, who was having one of the best kicking seasons in not just franchise, but also NFL history. Zuerlein had been dealing with on-and-off back discomfort throughout the season before the pain became unbearable prior to Sunday’s game against the Seahawks.
“It almost just was a little bit out of the blue in Seattle. He was at pregame meal and he couldn’t sit down. And he had a real hard time getting out of bed,” Fassel said Thursday. “He even said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be able to walk today. And I said, ‘Well, how about kicking?’ And he said, ‘Well, that too,’’ Fassel added with a laugh.
“It was as gritty of an effort as maybe I’ve ever seen in an NFL football game,” he continued, crediting head trainer Reggie Scott for getting Zuerlein able to play. “And usually you’d save that for offensive lineman or linebackers — like [Alec Ogletree] with the elbow. But for what Greg did with how he felt that morning — you’ve got to put that in rarefied air of a football player. He played through a really tough thing.”
Zuerlein was able to play most of the game, but the Rams nearly had to implement a strategy of sending punter Johnny Hekker out to kick if it became necessary. Fortunately, the Rams were ahead by a wide margin throughout the contest.
The kicker didn’t get any better once the Rams arrived back in Southern California. Fassel said he drove Zuerlein back to his house, with the Pro Bowler laid flat in the back of his car because he couldn’t sit down due to the pain. Zuerlein underwent surgery on Wednesday to correct the issue. Fassel has been in contact with Zuerlein and the kicker’s wife since the procedure, and he’s looking forward to the kicker fully recovering and coming back next year.
In the mean time, the Rams have games to win and need a kicker to help them do it. That’s why they held a tryout with 12 different kickers on Wednesday morning. Fassel said there were two groups of six — one at 8 a.m., the other at 9:15. And while they brought in a pair of long snappers to help out — Fassel didn’t want Jake McQuaide snapping upwards of 100 balls — Hekker was there in his usual role as holder.
“Each of them did the same exact thing, and we had a whole script. Each kicker got 12 field goals and five kickoffs,” Fassel said. “We brought in two snappers, and we had Johnny Hekker hold every single kick. So we got a true operation — it wasn’t just kicking off sticks where anybody can go out there and kick off sticks. So we had a snap, a hold, and a real kick.”
Clearly, Ficken won out over all competitors.
“He handled the operation great. There wasn’t the perfect snap and hold, and his operation time was pretty close to what a game would be,” Fassel said. “I thought he hit a really good ball. I thought a lot of guys did, but there’s just something about him where you just see a really true flight of the football — good enough distance where if you needed a low 50, or a mid-50 in a critical situation, he could probably give you that shot. And his kickoff ability was good.”
Though there were veteran kickers at the workout — Fassel mentioned both Dan Carpenter and Garrett Hartley — the special teams coordinator said he approached things with a clean slate. He wanted to pick the kicker who did the best that day.
And despite Ficken’s lack of NFL experience, Fassel wanted him.
“You just say, ‘There’s 12 guys that are coming in. Let’s just go clean slate for every one and pick who we think had the best workout,’” Fassel said. “We just thought that he did the best job.
“And we also thought, every kicker needs their first chance at some point,” Fassel continued. “So this will be Sam’s first chance, and it’s important. We understand the magnitude of the kicker we picked because of the position we’re in. And we feel confident he’ll do really good.”
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The Penn State product has spent time with the Jaguars and Chiefs since going undrafted in 2015, but hasn’t latched on for a regular-season opportunity yet. And even though Ficken was working in a brokerage firm, he was still kicking.
“I was pretty much working out five or six times a week and then kicked two to three,” Ficken said. “And that would be dependent on my work schedule, and daylight, and rain, and stuff that I didn’t really have control over, but could work with to stay in shape.”
He’s walking into a high-pressure job, particularly with the Rams one win away from clinching their first NFC West title since 2003. But Ficken is keeping it simple when it comes to his approach.
“I think team to team, the kicker always has one job and one goal — and that’s to make his kicks when given the opportunity,” Ficken said. “So it’s not something that I haven’t done before. I’ve kicked in games. I’ve kicked in preseason games. Everyone, I think, puts a moniker on the fact that I haven’t kicked in a regular-season game. But, again, day-to-day job stays the exact same: put it through the uprights and take care of business.”
Fassel said the Rams aren’t going to ask Ficken to do anything outside of his skillset — like kicking a 60-yard field goal — unless it’s maybe at the end of a half or absolutely necessary.
“But we’re going to ask him to make all his PATs and make very reasonable field goals. And kick off best he can,” Fassel said. “We’ll just design what we’re going to do on kickoff around what his strengths are.”
The new kicker does, however, change things a bit for the offense. Quarterback Jared Goff has often talked about how when the Rams reach opposition territory, he knows the club has points because of Zuerlein’s range and accuracy. And it’s not like this wasn’t a point of emphasis, but finishing drives with touchdowns and not field goals is now even more of a priority.
“[Zuerlein’s] been doing a great job all year, so it’s definitely going to affect you, but hopefully the new guy comes in and makes some extra points. Hopefully, now we just get into a situation and we want to score, not rely on the field goals,” running back Todd Gurley said. “Obviously, everyone has a job and if it’s time for Sam to make some kicks, then, hey, it’s time to make some kicks. But as an offense, we want to be able to score and execute, so won’t have to even put that pressure on him.”
And when those drives finish with touchdowns, L.A. will send out a kicker who has found the right place for his first true NFL opportunity to kick the extra point.
“I think you kind of see it around the league that maybe it’s not always the first year out that you make it. [Raiders K] Giorgio Tavecchio is a great example,” Ficken said. “He’s been in a bunch of preseasons. He’s always kicked well in them, but just never given the chance to kind of step foot on the real field. Hopefully, I can do a similar thing. I believed in myself. I believed in the work that I’ve put in. And I think, again, it was just a matter of time for me to be given a chance.”