IRVING, Texas - This was a rollercoaster ride Dan Bailey would never forget. In just his second career game, his emotions plunged and surged like the looping, shaking, creaking Texas Giant located just up the road from Cowboys Stadium.
Bailey had wasted a first-quarter scoring chance on the road against the San Francisco 49ers when he pushed a 21-yard field goal wide right. For basically the next three hours, he watched an injured Tony Romo and the Cowboys fight to get those points back until four seconds remained in regulation.
Down by three. San Francisco 30-yard line. Fourth down. The rookie was up again.
Bailey's second attempt, this time from 48 yards, split the uprights to force overtime. Three minutes into the sudden-death quarter, he got another chip-shot opportunity from 19 yards away. Perfect.
The Cowboys had completed a classic comeback against an old foe, 27-24, and 23-year-old Dan Bailey had learned all about the life of an NFL kicker in one afternoon: One minute you're a goat, next you're a hero.
Often, kickers aren't kept around long enough to be the latter.
"That was definitely a rollercoaster game for myself," Bailey recalled. "For me, a missed kick like that is pretty much the low of the low, and then having a kick to tie the game and send it to overtime is pretty much the most pressure you can have as a kicker. I had them both in one game.
"It was good to know how both felt. I wouldn't necessarily want it to happen again, but I learned a lot in that game. I think it helped me mentally prepare later on last season, and then obviously for the rest of my career, I can always go back to that game and remember what that felt like."
The Cowboys hope Bailey's first true test as a professional indeed laid the foundation for a long career in Dallas. Kickers have shuffled through Valley Ranch like customers through those Six Flags turnstiles in Arlington. The Cowboys have tried nine kickers since 2000, the longest being Billy Cundiff for the better part of four seasons (2003-06).
Nick Folk looked like the long-term answer after a Pro Bowl rookie season in 2007, but two years later, following hip surgery, he lost his consistency and his job. Most recently, David Buehler was more effective at kickoffs than field goals.
Enter Bailey, who signed as a rookie free agent out of Oklahoma State after the lockout ended last July. He beat out the incumbent, Buehler, along with a handful of rookies and veterans, and never looked back.
Bailey's two clutch kicks in Week 2 against the 49ers marked the start of 26 straight made field goals, a single-season Cowboys rookie record that also tied his coach, Chris Boniol, for the second-longest streak in club history. He went on to make three more game-winning kicks in 2011, including another in overtime on Nov. 20 against the Washington Redskins.
His 86-percent conversion rate (32-of-37) tied for fifth-highest in the league, while his 32 successful kicks set a club rookie record and again tied Boniol for second all-time. He also was a perfect 11-of-11 on kicks between 30 and 39 yards, where Buehler went 4-of-7 in 2011.
"He had an outstanding year last year," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He won a lot of games for us right at the end of the games and we put him in situations that he handled really, really well – difference-making plays. You see him growing and really getting stronger physically and also just handling the mechanics of his position better each and every day."
Bailey looks like a lock to retain his job at this point in the summer. His only competition, first-year veteran Delbert Alvarado, doubles as a punter. It's entirely possible the Cowboys ask Bailey to handle kickoffs full-time; he ranked 25th in the league with 24 touchbacks last year while Buehler missed 12 games due to injury.
Bailey's added strength could help him drive those kickoffs deeper. The Cowboys ranked 20th in kickoff coverage in 2011, with opponents' average drives starting at the 22.2 yard-line – very close to the league-leading Bengals' average (20.3-yard line).
Entering his second year, Bailey doesn't have nearly as much competition. But as he learned at Candlestick Park last September, he's only as good as his last kick.
"I don't know if it's that much different because when it comes down to it you've just got to go out there and do your thing and make your kicks. I'm just approaching it the same way as I did last year. I still have to make the kicks and put the kickoffs where they need to go."
Sixteen of the first 24 games under Garrett have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Cowboys need a clutch kicker. They hope Bailey can keep it up.