Kicker Jason Sanders’ success in 2023 goes back to a dedicated offseason coming off two down years

Miami Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023 in Miami Gardens. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

By DAVID FURONES | South Florida Sun Sentinel | December 29, 2023

MIAMI GARDENS — The kicker on an NFL team doesn’t do a postgame podium interview unless he makes a game-winning kick.

He doesn’t have a media scrum around his locker, like Miami Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders did Wednesday, unless he either does the extreme bad of losing a game for his team or an extreme good.

In Sanders’ case, he was on the right side of that spectrum this week.

“The team needed him, and he answered,” special teams coordinator Danny Crossman said.

Let’s have a moment for Jason Sanders.

After converting five field goals in last Sunday’s 22-20 win over the Dallas Cowboys — you get that weird football score of 22 when 15 points come on field goals — and winning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, he’s having his best season since his 2020 All-Pro campaign.

Sanders knew, after last season ended, that he wasn’t himself the previous two years. So he got to work in the offseason, making frequent drives across Alligator Alley to Naples for private sessions with personal kicking coach Brandon Kornblue, a Boca Raton native who played collegiately at Michigan in the late 1990s and holds kicking camps in South and Southwest Florida.

“I really do feel he’s one of the best kickers in the NFL,” Kornblue told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in a phone interview. “I don’t think he was kicking like that the last couple of years, but I think he’s kind of getting back to that now.

“I think he was so hungry to get back to where he’s capable of and knew he was not hitting the ball where his potential was.”

Sanders’ ball flight improved, making better, cleaner contact with the football on his kicks.

“You focus on fundamentals in the offseason, contact and little things like that,” Sanders told the Sun Sentinel. “You’re not changing anything. You’re just trying to find that swing that you left in the season before.

“You’re just searching for ball contact and maybe swing path a little bit. The less you actually think about it, I think, the more success you find in your swing.”

After a 5-for-5 game that involved three from beyond 50 yards, Sanders is now 22 of 26 on field goals in 2023. His 84.6 percentage is best since the 92.3 percent he made in 2020, and two of his four misses have been blocks. He is also 5 of 7 on 50-plus-yard field goals after going 4 of 12 from that distance between 2021 and 2022.

“If I had it in a bottle, I would bottle it and sell it, and probably be doing okay and make a couple of bucks,” Crossman said of what’s gotten into Sanders from long range.

The key, Sanders says, to having his best year from 50-plus since going 8 of 9 in that All-Pro 2020 season: Keeping consistent flight path on kicks, something Crossman said the team monitors at practice to see if tweaks are needed.

“You just want to hit a straight ball,” Sanders said. “That’s about it. Whether it goes to the left side or the right side, you just want it to travel straight.”

Crossman said Sanders has consistently hit the ball well all season.

With this year’s Dolphins’ propensity to score touchdowns, Sanders has also been limited in his opportunities to kick field goals. For two months from Week 3 through Miami’s bye in Week 10, from the middle of September to middle of November, he kicked three field goals, converting them all. Meanwhile, Sanders leads the NFL in extra point makes and attempts, 55 of 56.

“He’s just a no-nonsense (guy),” Kornblue said. “There’s no fluff. He’s a worker.

“Technically, when I show other guys what does perfect form look like or what you want to emulate, I use him as an example more than anybody else.”

One factor that has also made the year-to-year for Sanders challenging in his past two down seasons is changing holders. Punter Jake Bailey is his fourth holder in four seasons, after Thomas Morstead last year, Michael Palardy in 2021 and the final year of Matt Haack before that in 2020.

“When you have all that kind of turnover, that’s hard,” Kornblue said. “That’s what people don’t realize. That leads to the inconsistencies. Regardless, that’s out of his control. No matter who’s in there, he’s responsible for making his kicks no matter what.”

Crossman, who has said before the ideal scenario is to have a kicker, holder and long snapper work together for a long time, said that chemistry is something that develops quickly over the offseason and is at its best at this point late in the year.

“It doesn’t take long,” he said. “They are professional athletes for a reason and they work on their craft and execute it.”

Having a kicker going great this time of the year can pay dividends. Especially since, after the win over the Cowboys that already came down to a final kick, the rest of the Dolphins’ games could just as easily play out the same way.

It starts with Sunday’s showdown in Baltimore with the Ravens, which could determine the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The kicker on the other side, Justin Tucker, has made his share of clutch kicks and long ones, too.

Then, the Dolphins host the Buffalo Bills, which will likely either be to seal that top spot in the conference or for the AFC East crown.

Then, it’s the playoffs, and Sanders could easily again find himself in a position to boot the Dolphins into a deeper round of the postseason the same way, for the past two regular seasons, his kicks have clinched playoff berths for Miami.