Winning field goal may finally end Chase McLaughlin's forever journey
For the longest time, his journey had no end. His bags were forever packed, his paychecks were always temporary and his hopes were casually crushed from one corner of the country to the next. Across five years, 11 job opportunities and nine different uniforms, Chase McLaughlin traveled a continuous road.

Until Sunday, that is. Until the fourth quarter. And until the Bucs asked him to win a game. Turns out, the final 57 yards of the journey may be all McLaughlin needed to finally find his home in the NFL. "It's been a crazy career" McLaughlin said in the corner of the visiting locker room on Sunday. "Eleven teams in five years, so hopefully they'll let me stick around here."

In his first regular-season game for Tampa Bay, McLaughlin provided the winning points with a 57-yard field goal in the final five minutes of a 20-17 victory against the Vikings. "He's been in the league a few years now and it feels like he's already been on every single team" said Bucs punter and placeholder Jake Camarda. "I think what today shows is that he belongs. He's a heck of a player, and a heck of a guy. So it was fun to see him do that today."

It might have been more fun for Todd Bowles than any of the 66,741 in the building. Bowles spent much of his first season as head coach in Tampa Bay bemoaning the idea that the Bucs did not have a placekicker who was trustworthy beyond 45 yards.

Ryan Succop won a Super Bowl with the Bucs and is the franchise's most accurate kicker in history with an 84.8% success rate on field goals, but his inability to convert on longer kicks eventually led to the team parting ways with him in the spring. "We expected him to make that kick" Bowles said of McLaughlin. "That's what we signed him for, and that's what he did."

That sounds casual enough, but the truth is far from it. There are typically only a handful of games a year in the NFL with a game-winning field goal of 57 yards or more in the fourth quarter or overtime. And for a franchise that had grown accustomed to being on the wrong side of long, dramatic kicks, this was a scene to be savored. "It seemed like a very quiet moment" said receiver Chris Godwin. "It was like watching a movie."

For McLaughlin, 27, there was no fist pumping, no leaping into Camarda's arms, no visible sign that he had done something that may have changed the trajectory of his career. He didn't even seem to take additional satisfaction in the idea that the Vikings had signed him twice previously only to cut him loose.

"I keep the same routine with every kick, every drive" McLaughlin said. "I get up after we cross the 50, start hitting some practice kicks into the net, depending on how I'm feeling determines how many I take. As we get past second down, I start making my way over and prepare for them to call me out."

No pressure? "No pressure" McLaughlin said. "There are only so many things I can control, and the rest I leave up to God."

Maybe that's how he reconciles a career that's been better than he has been treated. Since he arrived in the league as an undrafted free agent from Illinois, McLaughlin has a better field goal percentage (81.8) from 50 yards or more than any kicker in the NFL with at least 20 attempts. He has, in fact, been better on 50-yarders than shorter field goals. From 49 yards or less, McLaughlin's average is 78.1%.

If McLaughlin was at ease in the moments before the kick, his teammates were a little less composed. Player after player in the locker room said they had faith in McLaughlin after watching him drill long kicks throughout training camp, but that didn't mean they weren't still on edge.

"Game on the line, it's kind of agonizing when the ball goes up in the air and you're trying to figure out if it has the distance" said left tackle Tristan Wirfs. "I mean, we have all the confidence in the world in him, but it was incredible when you finally realize it was going through."

As it turns out, the kick was a low liner that stayed true from the moment it left McLaughlin's toe. It only cleared the crossbar by a few feet, but probably would have still been good from 65 yards. "We were all nervous, waiting for it to happen. And then he makes it, and it's ‘Ahhhhhhhhh' Just a shot of excitement" said cornerback Carlton Davis. "Kudos to him, he gave us the win."

John Romano, The Tampa Bay Times, published 11 September 2023