2018 was a year with few bright spots for the Oakland Raiders.
Under first-year coach Jon Gruden, Oakland (4-12) traded away two of its best players in Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, who turned out to be defensive and offensive juggernauts for the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
However, one of the brightest spots for the Raiders this season, and in their franchise history, came on special teams.
The signing of kicker Daniel Carlson proved ingenious, as the rookie from Auburn set the franchise record for single-season field-goal percentage at 94.1 percent.
The previous record of 91.2 percent was by former first-round pick and longtime Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who was released by the team at the start of this season.
Carlson did not expect his season to go this way, though. The year featured significant highs and significant lows for the rookie kicker.
Carlson was originally drafted in April by the Vikings in the fifth round. Then in early September, he had a disastrous kicking game, going 0-for-3 on field goals against the Packers, which resulted in Carlson being cut by the Vikings before Gruden picked him up in October.
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Carlson was one of two kickers drafted this season and was the highest kicker taken in the draft. Expectations were high for Carlson as the Vikings thought they had drafted their franchise's kicker of the future. The Vikings traded up to get Carlson and traded two sixth-round picks to get Carlson with the 167th pick.
Carlson started strong, going 1-for-1 to start the season against San Francisco. In Week 2, Carlson had his nightmare game against Green Bay, which included missing the potential game-winner in overtime.
Carlson postgame credited the final miss to his lack of confidence
"It feels terrible. Obviously, I let my team down," Carlson told ESPN after the loss. "That last one was probably more just confidence after missing twice early. That's frustrating. That shorter one I should never miss like that."
Carlson was cut by the Vikings the following day. Coach Mike Zimmer said the decision was "pretty easy."
For the all-time points leader in the SEC, it was quite a stunning turn of events, and from Sept. 17th to Oct. 23rd, Carlson's NFL dream seemed to be over.
The kicker said the waiting game after being cut was one of the toughest stretches of the rookie’s career.
“It’s not fun sitting on the couch on Sundays,” Carlson told NBC Sports. “You really want to be out there and get a chance to prove yourself again and put all the work to the test.”
Carlson decided to keep working on his game and headed to Iowa to see his longtime kicking coach Jamie Kohl for some critical training. Carlson and Kohl have been working together since Carlson was a junior in high school.
“My main goal for him was to be able to see the ball longer and smooth out his approach,” Kohl told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He was just making it more difficult for his natural talent to show than necessary."
Carlson waited for this second opportunity to come, and the Raiders called in October following the release of fellow rookie kicker Matt McCrane. Carlson would go on to make all four extra points in his debut against Indianapolis.
“I was obviously very hard working before to get to the NFL, all that work put in, and it's the same thing after," Carlson said. "You learn a lot from it though. You learn about the business side of the NFL. You learn about all the stuff off the field that changes — having to move around and stuff, that’s never easy. But you have to continue to be ready for that next opportunity, and I was really excited my next opportunity ended up being here.”
The change of scenery and the second chance has been a great fit for Oakland and Carlson, as the rookie went 16 for 17 in his first season with the team, reaching the minimum number of kicks (16) for the percentage record.
Carlson went on to win AFC Special Teams Player of The Week after a Week 11 win over Arizona, connecting on three field goals from distances of 49, 21 and 35 yards. The final kick was a game-winner at the buzzer.
The 35-yarder was not only special for Carlson as it was the game-winner but also a form of redemption, as it was the same distance he missed in OT for the Vikings.
Carlson has quickly endeared himself to the "Raider Nation" by representing their underdog status. The kicker was the fifth kicker employed by the team this season, and the newfound stability has been a welcome relief for the coaching staff.
“He is the real deal,” Gruden said. “Hopefully, he is a long-term solution for us. It would solve a huge need for this franchise.”
Oakland and Carlson's seasons may have gone vastly different than either expected, but Carlson has found a new home, and the Raiders have found themselves their kicker.
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