Zane Gonzalez arrived to work each day this offseason not knowing if competition lurked.
The coach-to-player communication in the NFL is sometimes not as detailed as one might think, so at any moment, a serious contender for his kicking gig with the Cardinals could have just shown up. But none ever did.
“We didn’t really talk about it,” Gonzalez said. “For me and my selfish ways, I was hoping they wouldn’t … (but) I kind of assumed there would be. It’s the NFL, and that’s the name of the game. The coaching staff showed a lot of confidence by not bringing somebody in, and I was just trying to return the favor by proving them right in a sense.”
Through three games, the Cardinals’ decision looks prescient, as Gonzalez has been one of the best kickers in football.
The former Arizona State standout has converted on all nine field goals and three extra point attempts this season. Only four other kickers are perfect this year, and no one else in the NFL has more than seven made field goals.
The Cardinals would assuredly prefer to score more touchdowns, but Kliff Kingsbury appreciates the security blanket he has in Gonzalez when they don’t get in the end zone.
“He had a fantastic spring and camp,” Kingsbury said. “That’s what we’d seen, and it’s continued on into the season. I’m happy for him. He works really hard. He’s very diligent in his preparation. It’s definitely paid off for him.”
Gonzalez began his career as a seventh-round pick of the Browns in 2017, but was cut two games into his second year after some high-profile misses.
A groin injury affected the performance, so Gonzalez went back to his native Texas to rehabilitate and wait for his next chance. He was unemployed for two months before the Cardinals added him to their practice squad in late November.
“I had no idea what to expect (during the time between jobs),” Gonzalez said. “I was just trying to focus on myself and get healthy. I just wanted to make sure I was ready to go again, and when I got the call here, it all worked out pretty perfectly.”
A pre-existing relationship with special teams coach Jeff Rodgers helped his cause. The pair met when Rodgers coached Gonzalez at the 2017 Senior Bowl, learning about both his talent and mental makeup.
“It’s hard to hide who you are for a week,” Rodgers said. “A couple of those guys can hide it for a couple days, but eventually you reveal yourself. So I had a good understanding of who he was at that point.”
Gonzalez started off hot with the Cardinals, hitting a game-winning field goal on a snowy day in Green Bay last December, but it wasn’t a perfect season, as he finished 7-of-9 on field goals and 5-of-6 on extra points.
Gonzalez entered this season with a career field goal percentage of 70.6, which is why many thought he would have competition. Instead, Kingsbury and Rodgers continually pledged their faith in Gonzalez, who won the Lou Groza Award for college football’s best kicker in 2016.
“He’s got all the tools,” Rodgers said. “He’s extremely talented. It was just the consistency that we wanted.”
The reliability has shown up in spades in the first three games. Gonzalez hit four field goals in the opener against the Lions, keeping the team close enough to allow for a comeback. He was 3-of-3 on field goals in Baltimore and 2-of-2 against the Panthers. He even punted twice for 84 yards on Sunday after Andy Lee hurt his hip.
Gonzalez navigated a bumpy road early in his NFL career, but now his job performance mirrors how he feels about his kicking mechanics.
“I feel really smooth with it,” Gonzalez said. “I worked on a lot of stuff in the offseason and feel really good now.”