In mid-October, Anthony Lynn began a post-game press conference in Cleveland with a sentence he hadn’t often had occasion to use in his first 22 months as Chargers head coach.
“Well,” Lynn said, “we made all of our damn kicks.”
That afternoon, in a 38-14 win against the Browns, the Chargers had their seventh player in two years attempt a field goal or extra point. The team had endured a stretch of unluck at the position that seemed straight out of Greek mythology. In 2017, the Chargers cycled through Younghoe Koo, Nick Novak, Travis Coons and Nick Rose, plus punter Drew Kaser tried a few extra points after Novak exited a game early with a back injury. All together, they missed 10 of 30 field goals and five PATs last season, leaving the 9-7 Chargers wondering what could have been if they had a reliable kicking game.
The 2018 season didn’t get off to a much better start. After three missed extra points in the first month, the Chargers cut Kaser, who was part of the operation as the holder. A week later, after Caleb Sturgis was hampered by a quad strain in a Week 5 game against Oakland, they brought in three kickers for a tryout. Four days before the Browns game, following a Wednesday practice at the team’s facility in Costa Mesa, Calif., the kickers took turns lining up at a spot and trying kicks with a live snap and hold. A crowd was watching, including Lynn, special teams coordinator George Stewart and general manager Tom Telesco.
One member of the staff who was not spectating was Seth Ryan, a second-year offensive assistant who works with receivers coach Phil McGeoghan. Ryan does work typical of an entry-level quality control coach: typing up practice scripts, breaking down opponents, drawing the pass diagrams for the week. He’d gone inside to watch practice film with the offensive staff, but he had a keen interest in the workout that was going on outside. So after meeting with the receivers to share the coaches’ corrections from that day’s practice, Ryan poked his head into Lynn’s corner office on the second floor.
“How’d my guy do?” he asked.
Lynn didn’t know what he meant. “Who’s ‘your guy?’”
“Mike Badgley, from Miami,” Ryan said. “And Summit High.”
Suddenly, Lynn put it together.
In 2009, Seth Ryan enrolled in Summit High School in New Jersey. His father had taken a new job just a few miles up the road: Rex Ryan was the head coach of the New York Jets.
Ever a coach’s kid, when Ryan started attending summer practices, a teammate’s abilities immediately caught his eye. “He was booting 45-yard field goals as a freshman,” Ryan recalls. “I was like, gosh, who is this guy?” He was Mike Badgley.
Badgley wasn’t just a kicker. In his four years at Summit, he quite literally almost never came off the field. He played quarterback, running back, receiver, free safety, kicker, kick returner and punt returner. A few games into his senior season, the starting quarterback went down with a knee injury, so the coaches inserted the most athletic, most competitive guy who knew the offense—Badgley. They didn’t throw much, but seven of Badgley’s 18 completions that season went for touchdowns. There were times when he’d throw a touchdown pass, kick the extra point, grab the tee and make the ensuing kickoff, then line up at deep safety—and repeat, for four quarters.
Ryan played mostly cornerback in high school, and with the help of former Jets punter Louie Aguiar, he also learned to hold for field goals. He held for Badgley their freshman and junior seasons, and Badgley’s routine is still seared into Ryan’s memory: He takes three steps back and two to the left, rotates his feet, shrugs his shoulders, quickly looks up and then down, nods, and makes the kick. Summit coach Kevin Kostibos, then the school’s special teams coordinator, says he can’t remember ever seeing two high school kids who took the intricacy of the snap-hold-kick operation so seriously.
Ryan was the NFL head coach’s son, but Badgley was the best player on the field. For a time, Ryan was the team’s punt returner, but when he hurt his ankle in one game, Badgley took over; he took a punt to the house. Leaving the stadium that day, Rex teased Seth, “Well, you’ll never return punts again.”
Another time, Summit was backed up in a third-and-30 after a few holding penalties. Badgley was split out wide, in Summit’s spread set, and the coaches called what they thought was a safe, high-percentage route for him to get them a little more room before punting. Instead, Badgley caught the ball, made about five guys miss and sprinted for a 70-yard score. “I could see the faces of the opposing coaches,” Kostibos says, “and they were in bewilderment.”
Kostibos refers to Badgley as a linebacker in a kicker’s body. “He could run, catch, tackle,” Ryan adds. “Sometimes you watch him on kickoffs, and he’s trying to go make a hit, which you don’t really see kickers do.” Badgley won state championships at Summit in football, hockey and lacrosse, and he had originally planned to play college lacrosse, until he started to draw attention as a kicker. He scored 202 career kicking points for Summit; holds the school record for the longest field goal, a 49-yarder; and had a streak of 67 straight made PATs. In New Jersey high school football, kickers are permitted to kick off a block to make the field goals easier, but Badgley was kicking off the ground to prepare for college.
Rex Ryan told his son that Badgley had a future as a Division-I kicker, because he had the leg and the mind—a cool confidence that’s necessary for the pressure-packed position. Case in point: During Badgley’s senior year, in 2012, a game against Cranford came down to a final field goal. The opposing coach called a time out to ice him, and John Liberato, then Summit’s head coach, walked out onto the field, thinking he’d tell some jokes to keep Badgley loose. That wasn’t necessary.
“Coach,” Badgley said, “doesn’t he know I’m going to kick it through anyway, whether he calls a timeout or not?”
The 42-yard field goal was, indeed, good, earning Summit a 30-27 win in what would become an undefeated season. After each made kick, Badgley had a habit of facing the stands and turning his palms up, as if to say to the crowd, What, you didn’t think I was going to make it?
It would have been impossible for anyone watching Summit football in those years not to have noticed Badgley.
During the NFL season, Fridays are the lone free night for coaches, and so Rex Ryan made a habit of being at his younger son’s high school games. Quarterback Mark Sanchez would join him, and often members of Ryan’s Jets coaching staff. One summer, at one of Summit’s “Monday Night Football in July” 7-on-7 sessions at its stadium, Kostibos recalls Rex introducing him to the person he was sitting with in the stands: His running backs coach, Anthony Lynn.
Years later, the kicker the Chargers were about to sign—the kicker they so desperately needed—was a guy Lynn had already seen plenty of times.
When Badgley got the call from the Chargers in early October, he was at home in Summit, watching Monday Night Football with his dad. He fired off a text to his old high school teammate: “Hey, I am coming for a workout. See you out there.”
After high school, Badgley spent a post-grad semester at Fork Union Military Academy, then enrolled at the University of Miami, where he was a four-year kicker. Meanwhile, Ryan walked on at Clemson, where he put his abilities as a holder to good use, including in the team’s national championship win against Alabama in January 2017. He joined Lynn’s new Chargers staff not long after.
A rookie this year, Badgley had gone undrafted. He spent training camp with the Colts, but they let him go during final roster cuts in September (not surprising; they have a kicker). He’d been alternating between staying with his family and crashing on friends’ couches in Hoboken; all the while, he was kicking every other day to stay ready, and keeping an eye each week on the RedZone Channel to see if any teams had a need for a kicker.
Badgley flew to Los Angeles with not much more than his cleats and some workout gear in a carry-on, but he was staying. He signed on Thursday; on Friday, he was on the team plane bound for Cleveland. During the Chargers’ Saturday walk-through in Ohio, Lynn called Badgley over.
He told him he liked the fact that he was an all-around football player, and he wanted him to make sure to carry that attitude to his job as the Chargers kicker. One more thing, Lynn added. He remembered going to Badgley’s and Ryan’s state championship game in 2011 at Kean University. That wasn’t the year Summit won the state title—it was the season prior, when they lost to Madison, 47-7.
“You guys got your butts kicked,” Lynn recounted. “That was brutal.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Badgley replied. “I appreciate it.”
It was good-natured ribbing, and perhaps a bit of a Bill Parcells-ian move, making sure your players stay in check. The next day, in the win at Cleveland, Badgley made all six of his kicks. He followed that up with another perfect performance against the Titans, at London’s Wembley Stadium. Both fields have been unkind to kickers in the past.
After the team’s bye week, Sturgis, who had signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract in the offseason, was healthy enough to return from his quad strain. The Chargers moved Badgley to their practice squad, and went back to Sturgis for a Week 9 game in Seattle. But Sturgis missed two extra points and a 42-yard field goal, forcing the game to come down to a final goal-line stop by the Chargers defense. By the time the Chargers returned to the locker room after the 25-17 nail-biter, they were ready to make another change. They’d go back to Badgley.
Much has remained unchanged since Ryan was holding field goals for Badgley in high school, including the way that he lurches his shoulders forward before every kick—his high school coaches call this the “Summit Shrug”—and his unflappability. In early December, the Chargers’ Sunday Night Football game at Heinz Field came down to a field goal. With three seconds on the clock, and the score tied, Badgley lined up for the game-winning try. His first attempt flew just outside the left upright, but the Steelers were called for an offside penalty. Try No. 2 was blocked—but the Steelers were offside again. Finally, on take three, Badgley booted a 29-yarder straight through the uprights for a 33-30 win.
“Typical Mike,” thought Ryan, who was watching upstairs in the coaches’ box. “Nothing is going to faze him,” he adds. “The mental part is his biggest advantage.”
For years, the Chargers and their fans have been conditioned to hold their breaths when the kicker lines up for a try. There was Nate Kaeding’s missed 54-yarder in the 2006 playoffs that could have taken New England to overtime. In the 2009 divisional round, Kaeding missed three field goals in a 17-14 loss to, yes, Rex Ryan’s Jets. When Badgley arrived, after the parade of kickers over the last two years, he knew his teammates were wondering, Is this just another one?
But Badgley’s confidence has been contagious. The week after the Steelers win, Badgley begged Lynn for a chance to try a 59-yard field goal as time expired in the first half against the Bengals. He made it, setting a new franchise record. He was responsible for the majority of the Chargers’ points in their 23-17 Wild-Card win at Baltimore last week, hitting five field goals—another team record, for a playoff game—including a 53-yarder. (A sixth try was blocked after punter Donnie Jones double-clutched the hold.)
His teammates have started calling him the “Money Badger,” or just “Money Bags.” They actually look forward to field-goal periods in practice, and dap him up afterward. After the win in Baltimore, running back Melvin Gordon told reporters he was happy they have a kicker they can count on. “I have a lot of confidence in that young man,” Lynn said that day, “because he has a lot of confidence in himself.”
That October afternoon, by the time Seth Ryan poked his head into Lynn’s office to ask about “my guy,” the Chargers had already made a decision. Three months later, Lynn has seen enough to know Badgley is their guy.
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