Coming off poor season, Mason Crosby has kicking challenger

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mason Crosby wasn’t surprised that the Green Bay Packers decided to bring in some competition for him. The 28-year-old kicker knew he deserved that after finishing the 2012 season with the worst field-goal success rate in the NFL.

But as Crosby has watched recent signing Giorgio Tavecchio split kicks with him during minicamp and other offseason practices, he’s realized just how well he’ll have to perform in order to keep his spot on the team for another season.

“I’ve had this job for six years now, and when someone comes in, it’s the job that I want and the job I want to have and I’m going to compete for it and I’m going to fight for it every day,” Crosby said Wednesday. “Regardless if there’s a guy here or not, that’s what I’m doing. I’m always competing, always trying to get better and always trying to be the best I can in my job. That’s my focus.

“If Giorgio’s hitting the ball well, then it’s pushing me to be even that much better. I can be thankful for that.”

Tavecchio has been matching Crosby kick for kick in the practice sessions that have been open to the media. As the special teams field-goal unit lined up with all 11 players for the first time this week, Tavecchio and Crosby alternated kicks. After Crosby connected from 37 yards out, Tavecchio did the same. Then, Crosby’s successful 43-yard make was followed by Tavecchio sending that same kick through the uprights. Finally, from 50 yards out (a distance at which Crosby went 2 for 9 last season), the veteran kicker made it. So did Tavecchio, who had the distance to easily clear it even if it had been from 60 yards away.

“To be able to hit a couple good balls and do well, it was definitely satisfying,” Tavecchio said. “But it’s one day at a time. After those kicks were done, I was immediately focused on what’s next and just keep on the grind. Because the last thing you want to do is get complacent.”

Tavecchio, who was cut by the San Francisco 49ers in preseason in 2012, wouldn’t specify what his maximum range is.

“Depends on the day; Depends on what I had for breakfast,” Tavecchio said with a smile. “It depends on a lot of things. I feel like if I hit a good ball, I can hit it pretty deep.”

This is something that Crosby hasn’t been accustomed to since winning the job as a rookie in 2007. After beating out Dave Rayner that year, the Packers have left Crosby alone and haven’t had any other kickers with the team.

“Having a guy here has been motivating for me,” Crosby said. “It’s pushed me. I watch (Tavecchio’s) stuff and I really evaluate myself even more. That’s what I do every offseason, though. It’s about me. I evaluate myself and I take care of what I can control.

“If anything, this has made me really dive into that even harder.”

Last season, even as Crosby’s misses piled up, coach Mike McCarthy stood by him. It was almost on a weekly basis that McCarthy defended Crosby publicly, often repeating the phrase, “Mason is our kicker.” As the 49ers signed Billy Cundiff to compete with a struggling David Akers prior to the playoffs, the Packers didn’t waver in their support for Crosby.

That was then, a critical time of the season during which Green Bay chose not to make any major changes at kicker. This is now, with plenty of time to experiment and push Crosby in the hope that he regains the form he had in 2011 when connecting on a career-best 85.7 percent of his field goals.

“I try not to get too high or too low with any given thing and that’s served me well throughout my career,” Crosby said. “I had a good 2011 season and have a track record of doing good things. I just want to continue doing those things and make sure I focus on the things that are my strengths and make sure I eliminate any inconsistencies.”

Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said that Crosby has handled the competition “like a professional,” despite the unfamiliar circumstances of only getting half the number of live repetitions.

“He’s done a very good job with it,” Slocum said of Crosby. “The competition is going to have these guys hopefully moving forward. No decisions are made early and we’ll take our time and use all the practice opportunities we can and evaluate it.”

An ongoing competition hasn’t stopped Crosby and Tavecchio from quickly becoming friends. But, as punter Tim Masthay noted, Tavecchio is the first new face on the special teams group in years. Masthay, Crosby and long snapper Brett Goode have been a three-man band that’s suddenly dealing with a fourth voice. That voice just happens to be coming from the animated and enthusiastic Italian-born Tavecchio.

“I think my personality is such that I’m not too overbearing, although I’m very energetic,” Tavecchio said. “I realize that those guys have been around together for a long time. The last thing I want to do is ruffle anyone’s feathers. I want to come in and be the friend, the teammate, the supporter that I am. I think they’ve appreciated that.”

One of the most challenging aspects in the relationship dynamic between Tavecchio and Crosby has been when the rookie has a question for the veteran kicker.

“It’s definitely a delicate issue,” Tavecchio said. “I’ve asked Mason for advice. I didn’t want to come off as overbearing, so I didn’t ask him for advice Day One after just shaking his hand. I can’t thank him enough, and the team. They’ve been very cordial, very friendly, very welcoming to me. For them to open up and be so warm to me, it’s greatly appreciated.”

The addition of Tavecchio has also given Masthay a new responsibility. As the holder, Masthay has always practiced with the right-footed Crosby. Even in college, Masthay held only for righties. Tavecchio is a left-footed kicker.

“It is definitely a new skill,” Masthay said. “From the seated-position stance part, the comfort of that is one thing. And then the main thing is I’m used to catching mainly with my left hand and rotating the ball with my right hand. Now it’s just the exact opposite.

“It’s coming along. I don’t know that I’m game-ready right now but I think I’m doing a decent job with it. Once I found out we were signing Giorgio, I started working on it right away. I’m confident in it.”

Ultimately, all of this falls on Crosby. If he can even be equal to Tavecchio leading into this upcoming season, the Packers will likely keep Crosby. Not only is Crosby more experienced but he’s also owed nearly $8 million over the next three seasons.

However, Crosby will need to prove to Green Bay’s front office and coaching staff that the 2012 season was just a fluke for him. Otherwise, Crosby knows his job could be in jeopardy.

“I’m not even thinking about last season anymore,” Crosby said. “I’m really focused on this upcoming season, drawing on positives and making sure that I am focused on what is ahead here. I’m thankful for competition; I always am and I think that’s good. That’s how guys grow.”

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