ALAMEDA, Calif. — Sebastian Janikowski is finally living up to those lofty expectations placed on him when Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis made him the third kicker ever taken in the first round of the draft back in 2000.
It’s only fitting that perhaps his best game as a pro came last weekend in Houston, the day after Davis’ death.
Janikowski tied an NFL record with three field goals of at least 50 yards in a 25-20 victory that was as difficult emotionally as it was rewarding on the field.
“It was tough,” Janikowski said this week. “I knew the guy. I’d been here a long time. He was the guy who brought me here. We just wanted to win one for him. I think he was looking over us.”
Janikowski probably knew Davis as well as any current player on the team. He and punter Shane Lechler are the longest-tenured Raiders in their 12th NFL season.
Janikowski and Davis always will be linked because of Davis’ controversial decision to take him 17th overall. That pick was panned by many experts who believed it was far too high to take a specialist who only got on the field for a handful of plays each game.
But he’s proving to be awfully valuable so far this season, having kicked a record-tying 63-yarder in the season opener at Denver and then the big game in Houston.
“When you’ve got a guy like Seabass, man, it’s definitely a weapon,” special teams captain Rock Cartwright said. “Mr. Davis drafted him first round. A lot of people were wondering why. It showed on a special day. He’s a great weapon, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Janikowski is one of seven first-rounders from that draft still in the league and the only players taken after him in the first round who played at a high level were Chad Pennington, Shaun Alexander, Chris Hovan and Keith Bulluck.
Davis believed Janikowski could be a game-changer with a booming left leg that could provide plenty of long field goals and frequent touchbacks.
The beginning of his career featured way too many misses for a kicker drafted so high. Janikowski missed 10 field goals as a rookie, and connected on only 76 percent for his first three seasons. Clearly, he struggled to live up to those lofty expectations.
He also was briefly jailed on suspicion of misdemeanor assault, misdemeanor vandalism and public drunkenness — among a handful of run-ins with the law.
But his work ethic and play have improved in recent years and he is now as reliable as any kicker in the league, making 11 of 12 field goal attempts.
“My confidence in him has always been strong, I think it’s even stronger now,” coach Hue Jackson said. “His confidence for himself is really good, and the team has unbelievable confidence in him, we trust him.”
Janikowski begins each game by testing his leg in warmups and telling Jackson how far he feels comfortable from in each direction. That varies based on stadium, wind and other factors, but is usually more than 60 yards.
Then Jackson feels confident sending his star kicker out whenever he needs it.
“We go to wherever he feels like,” said Lechler, Janikowski’s holder for his entire career. “We always try to gauge what our limits would be in a game in certain situations. Usually it’s around the record mark area. We may not always kick it from there pregame, but we may kick a 58-yarder and know that he had seven or eight yards extra on it and we’ll just gauge it off of that.”
Janikowski already has made five field goals of at least 50 yards this season, three shy of the NFL record held by Jason Hanson and Morten Andersen. His only miss of the season was a 56-yarder against the New York Jets.
Along with his big leg, Janikowski has improved his accuracy in recent years. He has missed just one attempt from inside 40 yards the last four seasons — a potential game-winner from 32 yards last year at Arizona.
That accuracy has translated to long kicks as well. After hitting 7 of 16 from 50 yards or more in his first six seasons, Janikowski has made 27 of 46 over his last six years as his improved results lead to more attempts, which in turn help his kicking.
“I’ve gotten more relaxed,” he said. “I know that I’ve been making long field goals and we’re going to try long field goals and I feel more relaxed out there.”
That has proven to be a boon for the Raiders, especially last week. His first two field goals came on kicks of 54 and 55 yards and gave the Raiders points on a pair of drives that netted only 1 yard combined.
That kept the Raiders in the game even though they didn’t get their initial first down until after the 2-minute warning in the first half.
“He is a luxury vehicle to have on the car lot,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “You walk out on the field and you see him, he looks like he plays for a baseball team, and all of a sudden he comes out on Sundays and he’s kicking 60- and 70-yard bombs. It’s exciting for us to see that.”