CINCINNATI — Mike Nugent felt good heading out to the field. Two seconds were left in overtime and things were set up perfectly for the Bengals’ kicker to end 75 minutes of football victoriously. The ball was in the middle of the hash marks at the 18-yard line of the Carolina Panthers. One good snap, one good hold and one good kick from 36 yards away and the Bengals would have a 40-37 win and a 4-1 record.
Nugent had put behind him the past few weeks, which hadn’t gone so well, and made three previous attempts from 44, 38 and 42 yards.
This kick was all but the formality of the act.
Until the ball drifted wide right.
"I didn’t have to look up," said Nugent. "I could’ve told you it didn’t even hit the net. It’s probably the worst ball I’ve ever hit in a game. Ever."
So instead of a win, the Bengals and Panthers walked out of Paul Brown Stadium with a tie.
People will forget the three field goals Nugent previously made. They’ll forget how the Bengals committed 13 penalties for 113 yards, including a holding call against right tackle Andre Smith late in the fourth quarter that wiped out what would’ve been a 22-yard touchdown run and possible overtime preventer by rookie running back Jeremy Hill. They’ll forget how the defense failed to contain Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who had 391 yards of offense between his passing and running skills.
They’ll forget every other play in game that had three lead changes and six tied scores before ending deadlocked.
They won’t forget Nugent’s wide right. That’s the life of a kicker.
"Everyone will say it’s just one play in the game but as a kicker it’s your biggest play of the day so it’s tough to think otherwise," said Nugent. "I never get worried about confidence. I don’t think I’d be playing for 10 years if I had an issue with confidence. It’s just at the moment right now a lot of disappointment. It’s just really tough to see my coaches and see my teammates after a game like that. Just knowing that you didn’t finish one."
Nugent is now 11-of-17 on field goal attempts this season. That’s two more than he missed all of last season. Or the season before that. He once missed seven kicks in a season when he was with the New York Jets but that was on 37 attempts.
He’s been on the opposite side of this equation. He’s made seven game-winners in either the final two minutes of regulation or overtime, including in back-to-back games last season at Buffalo and at Detroit. He’s struggling to find that rhythm again.
"The last four games the warmups have been great and I’ve been hitting the ball very well but that doesn’t matter," said Nugent. "You’ve got to make it when it counts. I loved the first three hits but that (last one) was pathetic."
Nugent was harder on himself than any of his teammates or coaches.
"Every player on this team, we all think about what we should have done better," said linebacker Vinny Rey. "I think about what I could’ve done better. I could’ve played better to help us win. That’s how everybody thinks. Nobody is blaming anyone. Everybody is just worried about what we could have done better."
Quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 323 yards and two touchdowns but was also intercepted twice, once when his arm was hit by Panthers’ linebacker Thomas Davis while attempting the pass. The Bengals were leading 17-10 at that time and threatening to go up by two scores on the first possession of the second half. Instead, the interception was a catalyst for the Panthers to score two straight touchdowns and take a 24-17 lead.
"You can look at that last field goal that didn’t work out, but here were so many other opportunities to win before that," said Dalton. "It’s unfortunate to come out the way it is, but I guess it’s not a loss."
Cornerback Terence Newman came over to Nugent before Nugent began speaking with the media gathered around his locker. He wrapped his left arm around Nugent’s shoulders and whispered words of encouragement before a final friendly tap good-bye.
"I have to learn from it and move on," said Nugent. "I can’t really say I’m having a good season anyways. It’s not like this is the first tough moment of the season, but if you can just learn from it. The biggest mistake I could make is not caring about the kick and not watch it, not learn from it and try to work on it."