CHICAGO — Matt Prater jogged onto the field, having been in this position many times in his tenure with the Detroit Lions. The game on the line, the field goal more than 50 yards away. No pressure, no discomfort.
The 52-yard attempt was longer than the range the Lions had decided upon in pregame Sunday. But with 1:35 left and the score tied, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell looked down the bench at Prater. The veteran kicker gave him a nod. So Caldwell decided to go with his money kicker in a tough spot.
With the winds swirling inside Soldier Field, Prater wasn’t worried. He conferred with holder Sam Martin, who told him to aim at the left upright and kick it as hard as he could. Prater, since he plays in a dome, usually doesn’t have to worry about that strategy.
“I’ll say this on the record,” Martin said. “That’s up there with the 64-yarder as one of the best kicks of his career if you ask me. That kick is net distance, into the wind, it was a cross headwind, so it wasn’t just a cross-wind, it was in our face. And you got to aim it and hit it just about perfect to get that ball in the air and keep it inside the uprights.”
That’s what Prater did. As it left his foot, long-snapper Don Muhlbach heard the thump. He knew Prater crushed it. He’s heard the sound before, but not on any of Prater’s other kicks Sunday. Muhlbach looked up. He saw it going straight. He knew it was going to be good, just like so many of Prater’s past kicks. It gave the Lions an eventual 27-24 win over the Chicago Bears in a game Detroit had to have — the 13th game-winner with two minutes or less remaining in his career.
It might sound crazy to call a kicker one of the most valuable — if not the most valuable — free agent signings the Lions have made over the past five years. Glover Quin has become one of Detroit’s best defenders. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate are strong receivers for Matthew Stafford.
What Prater, now in his fourth season in Detroit, has been able to do might be on a higher level.
“He’s one of a kind. We’re spoiled,” Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “Every time he goes out there, he’s banging it. I wasn’t here the year before, but seeing the games he won for Detroit, some of those close games, it doesn’t get no better than Prater, man. It doesn’t.”
Prater downplayed his importance Sunday, deflecting credit to the offense, Martin and Muhlbach. He said he was “pretty fortunate” to hit it as well as he did. Except he’s done it over and over. Those same players he passes credit to shower praise on him because some of them understand where the Lions were pre-Prater.
Detroit cycled through kickers after Jason Hanson’s retirement following the 2012 season, watching David Akers, Nate Freese and Alex Henery all miss critical kicks. The Lions were desperate when then-Broncos coach, and current Bears coach, John Fox cut Prater following a four-game suspension in 2014.
They took a chance on a player who was a camp leg in Detroit for Hanson in 2006. Muhlbach was around then. When the Lions signed Prater on Oct. 7, 2014, Muhlbach understood what the Lions were getting. Prater holds a share of the record for longest field goal in NFL history — 64 yards set with the Broncos in 2013. He knew the strength Prater had. He knew the consistency.
Muhlbach had a feeling Prater would solve the Lions’ problem.
“It was nice to know what was coming in,” Muhlbach said. “I knew him and his track record spoke for itself. Even when he went to Denver, he was still smoking the ball, so yeah, it was just nice to have some familiarity when he came back.”
In the Lions, Prater found a comfortable home and a good battery in Muhlbach and Martin. In Prater, the Lions received a kicker who is at least Hanson’s equal. Since signing, he’s made 10 game-tying or game-winning kicks with four minutes or less remaining or in overtime.
He’s tied with John Kasay for third all-time in career field goals of 50 yards or more made with 42 — despite playing 10 fewer seasons than Kasay and Hanson, who is No. 2 on the list with 52.
Prater has made all 17 kicks in his career of 50 yards or more in the fourth quarter or overtime. Since 2001, he’s one of three kickers with five or more attempts from that range in that situation to not miss, joining Minnesota’s Kai Forbath (5 of 5) and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski (6 of 6).
Prater’s made more than both of them combined. Only two kickers — Akers and Sebastian Janikowski — have even attempted more.
“He’s incredible,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “You look at even through the years here, we’ve come from behind a number of different games and had to win them at the end and he’s been a huge part of that. So there’s no question about that. What he provides for us in getting ourselves in relatively good position to give him a chance, he’s usually come through for us.”
Prater’s value was accentuated by looking at Detroit’s opponent Sunday. After the kick, Prater joked — or maybe he wasn’t joking — that he was yelling at Fox. The Bears actually drove into field goal range after Prater’s field goal. But Connor Barth missed a 46-yarder — the type of kick Prater has made consistently for Detroit.
His value can’t be explained any better than that.
“That’s one thing you never do,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “Is doubt Prater.”