MIAMI — John Carney began preparing for the moment two years ago. Kickers generally have a lot of time to ponder their assigned tasks, but this was excessive even by those standards. The man who may well be the foremost offensive weapon of the San Diego Chargers started thinking seriously about Super Bowl XXIX during a trip to Pasadena for Super Bowl XXVII.
He wasn't drawn to the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills as much as to the spectacle. "I wanted to experience the hoopla outside the game in case I got there as a player," Carney said this week. "I wanted to see the pregame show and the halftime show so I wouldn't be curious what I was missing. I know we're going to be in the locker room forever."
Such attention to detail is characteristic of Carney, who led the NFL in scoring this season and ranks among the most accurate kickers in history. Even Doug Brien, the rookie who handles similar chores for the favored San Francisco 49ers, was amazed to hear the stories told by David Binn, who was his snapper at California and now centers for Carney.
"David told me (Carney) is real meticulous," Brien said. "Just before they went up to play the Seahawks in Seattle, he watched tape of Washington Huskies games because they were playing in Husky Stadium for the first time and he wanted to see how the wind blows." The 49er shook his head in amazement.
At this stage of his career--having been waived by the Cincinnati Bengals (in his first training camp), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Rams (after one game)--Carney is loathe to take anything for granted. Not even after challenging his own league record for consecutive field goals (29) this season and earning his first Pro Bowl selection.
"This isn't like college," the Notre Dame graduate said. "There's no second string for kickers. Instead of sitting you on the bench for a couple of weeks, they are going to cut you if you don't do the job."
Brien has yet to learn the hard facts of NFL life. Unlike Carney, who started as a free agent, Brien was a third-round draft pick who stepped immediately into a supporting role with the best team in football. "It's easy," he decided, "because I'm a nobody. Let's face it, the 49ers would be here with or without me. I get used a lot--just not (often) for kicking field goals. At least extra points keep me busy."
The measurement of their relative importance is a simple one. Brien attempted only 20 field goals for San Francisco, succeeding on 15. Carney was called on 38 times and converted 34. The Chargers kicker had two game-winning field goals in the waning seconds. Brien had none, befitting a team whose average margin of victory was 18.5 points.
If only for his experience, Carney has a substantial edge over his rival. It may be the only position at which San Diego enjoys a clear advantage in Super Bowl XXIX. And if the Chargers still have a chance to win in the fourth quarter, it's likely Carney will be facing a supreme test.
Of course, he will be ready. In addition to observing the Cowboys' rout of the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, he attended Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. He was sitting in the opposite end zone when Scott Norwood's deciding kick from 47 yards sailed wide right. "I thought it would be good," Carney recalled. "I watched him in pregame warmups and I watched him during the game. I don't think Scott was nervous. He gave it a good ride."
Because it's his personality to be precise, Carney studied the films later. "I thought the hold could have been a little better," he said. "The laces were not facing forward. Scott was a Pro Bowl kicker. I felt terrible for him."
Nonetheless, the drama of the finish and the level at which the game was played was a revelation to the kicker. "When I saw that game unfold," he said, "I felt a better appreciation for the NFL and the Super Bowl. I thought maybe some day I'd be in Matt Bahr's shoes or Scott Norwood's shoes. I visualize that in practice."
Unlike Carney, Brien is just happy to be at the Super Bowl, especially given that the field at Joe Robbie Stadium promises firm footing, a nice change of pace from the Candlestick bog. Carney isn't nearly as effusive. After all, he's been here before in person and, more significantly, in his mind.