To say that New Orleans Saints 2nd year kicker Wil Lutz got off to a bit of a difficult start to his NFL career last year, would be an understatement.
The 23-year old Lutz -- who is now the 11th different kicker for the Saints during the Sean Payton Era -- came under scrutiny almost immediately by both fans and even some within the media covering the team after he struggled with consistency in the first half of the 2016 season.
Specifically, Lutz's problems were with the trajectory of his kicks, or not getting enough "lift" or height on them as the ball left his foot. That in turn often led to some rather dire consequences which had some fans as well as one particular writer that covers the team, calling for him to get cut from the roster.
There was the loss to the Giants in Week #2, where New York scored its only TD of the game after they blocked one of his low line-drive kicks on a field goal attempt right before halftime, that changed the complexity and the eventual outcome of that close contest.
It was also his Lutz's third miss in his first two games, and he even began drawing comparisons to former late 1970's former Saints kicker Russell Erxleben --- generally considered by those most knowledgeable about the team's history, as the worst Saints kicker of all-time.
And then of course, there was the unforgettable blocked extra-point attempt against the Denver Broncos in Week #9 that ultimately became the turning point of the Saints' entire 2016 season.
The Broncos blocked Lutz's potentially game-winning extra point after a near miraculous Drew Brees-to-Brandin Cooks TD pass into triple coverage, and ran it all the way back for the winning score -- driving a dagger into the hearts of a sold-out Superdome full of "Who Dats" in the process.
Then if that hadn't been enough?
Only 5 days later on Thursday Night Football in Week #10, Lutz had another field-goal attempt blocked at Carolina. The Panthers scored a touchdown on the next play, another momentum-changer that eventually allowed Carolina to put the Saints away in another loss.
By this point, the fans and that one writer covering the team -- and yes, that writer was ME -- were calling for the former Georgia State University star kicker's proverbial "head on a silver platter".
But then suddenly, something changed.
What exactly was that "something"?
When the Saints brought in respected NFL special teams "guru" Kevin O'Dea in November, to essentially become Lutz's personal kicking coach.
The results were almost immediate --- and as a testament to O'Dea's guidance: Lutz went 12-for-12 after O'Dea's arrival on the scene, and went from drawing comparisons to the Saints' worst kicker ever (Erxleben) to the best Saints kicker ever -- soon-to-be Hall of Famer Morten Andersen.
Lutz finished the 2016 season strong, with a total of 28 converted field goals out of 34 attempts -- a percentage of 82.35%.
So what happened exactly that turned Lutz's season and perhaps his entire future NFL career around so suddenly?
Of all things, how about blue PVC pipes --- like those used by plumbers or air conditioning repairmen.
NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune NFL writer Larry Holder says that when O'Dea came in, he brought with him two blue pipes (almost like water noodles on PVC pipe) that reached about 13 feet high.
Holder noted that two Saints staffers would each stand with a pipe opposite Lutz when he attempted kicks. It improved Lutz's height on kicks almost immediately, since it mentally FORCED him every time to put more "lift" on the kick as his foot struck the ball.
Problem solved -- and hopefully for good.
As a result, Lutz became one of the entire NFL's more consistent kickers by the end of his rookie 2016 season.
Not too shabby for a young man that got compared to the once-reviled Erxleben.
"Yeah, it was definitely an up-and-down year," Lutz told reporters at the end of Mini-Camp last month. "But as a rookie, all you can ask for is to learn, take it and build off of it. I think it was a good first step for me, and I'm excited to work and build off of it."
Now with the stigma of last year's poor start off of his back, Lutz is focused on the season ahead; and looking to establish a pattern of consistency that will hopefully draw a lot more comparisons to the future Hall of Famer Andersen, who will be inducted into Canton in a week and a half from now on Saturday, August 2nd.
As most older Saints fans know, Andersen was nicknamed "Mr. Automatic" during his years with the Saints, after he was named to six Pro Bowls, kicked a total of 302 field goals (many of them "game winners"), and scored a grand total of 1318 points.
Might we start calling Lutz the next "Mister Automatic"?
Perhaps it's a bit too early for that.
But it's certainly not too early or even far-fetched to say that Lutz 'potentially' anyway, has the opportunity to become one of the most reliable kickers for the Saints in quite some time.
"I feel like I'm a lot stronger," Lutz said. "I've really focused on getting a strong base. I feel great right now and that I'm stronger than ever. I worked on little things during the down time. I'm not quite where I want to be, but it's early on in the process, but I really like where things are going right now."
As the Saints head closer towards the start of the upcoming 2017 season, the team's fans now like the way things are going with Lutz as well..............