Matt Prater's honeymoon is over.
Nobody in Denver was missing Jason Elam when the Broncos' new kicker made 13 of his first 14 field goal attempts, including a couple of astonishing kicks that would have been good from 70 yards.
Now that he's fallen into a funk with five misses in his last four games, Prater finds himself the object of fans' scorn, his seething quarterback's, ahem, words of encouragement and his coach's joke about job security.
It was a joke, right? Prater's two mid-range misses Sunday prompted Mike Shanahan to suggest his new kicker has lost his confidence.
Shanahan never had to deal with kicking issues in Denver before because Elam was money for 15 seasons before signing a free-agent deal with Atlanta in the offseason.
So, he was asked Monday just how he and his staff can help a kicker iron out issues that are mental, not mechanical. "You bring in another kicker," Shanahan cracked. "That's what you call tough love."
Shanahan doesn't have any kickers coming in for tryouts just yet. "No. No. No, it's just, you know, the guy feels like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders," Shanahan said. "And he's just got to work through it."
Prater is 5-for-5 from 50-plus yards, tied for the league lead and tying the franchise record for most long-range field goals, and he's 10-of-12 from close range up to 39 yards.
It's what's in between 40 to 49 yards where Prater is finding trouble, missing four of seven attempts from that range, including twice against Oakland on Sunday.
And it's in between his ears where he needs to correct things, Shanahan suggested. "With most kickers, I think it's all mental," Shanahan said. "We've seen what he's able to do. All of a sudden you miss one or two and all of a sudden you start thinking about it. Hey, I think you've just got to relax.
We know he's a good field goal kicker. "Everybody goes through slumps. And hopefully he's tough enough mentally to fight through it," Shanahan added.
Prater missed from 47 and 43 yards in the first half of the Broncos' stunning 31-10 loss to the Raiders. He was good from 44. "I just had a bad day, just didn't kick well," Prater said. "The first one I played the wind too much and missed it. The second one, I caught the ground and hooked it."
After Prater's second miss, as the first half expired, quarterback Jay Cutler, who didn't have a good game either, grabbed Prater by his collar and hollered at him facemask to facemask as the rattled kicker stared straight ahead.
"He was just trying to get me going," Prater said. "He was like, 'Come on, we need you. We need you to make these kicks and come back, we've got another half."'
Asked Monday if he had gotten some encouragement from his teammates, Prater said: "Yeah, just kind of in between, a little bit of both."
"But I think I'm the most upset if I miss a kick," he added. "That's my job to make kicks, and when I don't do it, I'm going to be most upset about it, more than anybody else. So, it's just one of those things where Cutler's just trying to help me out and get me going."
Prater agreed his troubles aren't technical. "I'm hitting the ball well, just not as straight as I should."
As hard as he tries to block it out, he acknowledged that doubts start to creep in with the string of misses, but he insisted he hasn't lost his confidence, as Shanahan suggested.
"I've been hitting the ball well, it's just my line's a little off," Prater said. "I'm still pretty confident. And when I go out, I expect to make all the kicks."
Prater said he's stumped by his slump given his early-season triumphs, which included an AFC special teams Player of the Week award after kicking a 55-yarder against Tampa Bay, a kick that prompted Bucs coach Jon Gruden to marvel "Have you ever seen a kicker kick a 55-yarder and make it by 25 yards? Why work on your kickoff return when you come here."
Prater is among the league leaders with 18 touchbacks on kickoffs. But that strong leg suddenly isn't so accurate on field goals anymore.
"It's tough to have success and then struggle a little bit," Prater said. "It worked in the beginning and it shouldn't be any different now." Well, except for the weather.
The Broncos play three of their last five regular season games in cold conditions, two at home and one next week at the Meadowlands against the New York Jets.
Prater said he'll just use the winds to try directional kickoffs. But field goals? He knows it's not going to get any easier as the weather worsens and he tries to straighten out both his head and his kicks. And get the fans back on his side and Cutler off his case.
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