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Alex Zendejas and the Yips

Alex Zendejas still has the yips. At this point, is it really worth being mad at him for it?

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-On Saturday night, I went to the Arizona Rattlers game against the Portland Thunder. As my wife and I were about to leave for the game, we learned that Alex Zendejas would be kicking for the Arizona Rattlers, which gave us something to root for. We draped ourselves in Arizona gear and went to the game.

Part of the reason I wanted to see Zendejas kick was to see if he worked out his yips. The "yips" refers generally to an athlete’s inability to perform the simple tasks related to his or her role. Katie Baker's Grantland article details many examples of this phenomenon: Joel Stave, Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, was unable to complete a 10-yard pass while retaining the ability to throw 40-yard passes. Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t make accurate throws as a second baseman, forcing him to move to the outfield. And Ana Ivanovic could not even throw a tennis ball upward for a serve. Those sort of problems – the inability to do the simplest tasks related to your position while still retaining the ability to do some of the more difficult ones – immediately brings to mind Alex Zendejas.

And for good reason. Alex Zendejas’ career at Arizona had a very strange trajectory. He played sparingly as a freshman, playing in three games and going 5-for-5 on extra points. As a sophomore, he had his best season at Arizona, making 77% of his field goals. The warning signs, though, may have started to exhibit themselves during that season: while Zendejas went 2-of-3 from 40-49 yards and 7-of-9 from 30-39 yards, he also went 7-of-9 from 20-29 yards. Worse, he went 38-for-41 on extra points, which is not great. At that point, short kicks were no guarantee for Zendejas.

It was downhill from there. As a junior, Zendejas went 41-of-46 on extra points and made 74% of his field goals. He was able to make field goals from distance with regularity – he was 7-of-9 on 40-49 yard field goals – but he was only 2-of-5 from 30-39 yards. Sample size aside, that’s not great, and it provides some empirical support from the feeling I had whenever Zendejas was kicking: I felt better when he was trying longer kicks than when he was kicking shorter ones. That year was capped off by Zendejas’ most famous miss – a missed extra point with 27 seconds left against Arizona State:

By his senior year, it was over. Arizona brought in Jaime Salazar to try to replace Zendejas, but, after Salazar struggled, Zendejas got another opportunity. He didn’t take advantage of it. He went 6-of-10 on extra points and missed his only field goal attempt of more than 30 yards. John Bonano, who was previously the kickoff specialist, eventually took over.

At Arizona, Zendejas’ problems were always related to those short kicks. Compare Zendejas to Arizona’s kicker last year, Casey Skowron. Skowron made only 71.4% of his field goals, going 7-of-9 on 20-29 yarders, 9/14 on 30-39 yarders, and 4/5 on 40-49 yarders. That’s not a great performance on those 20-39 yard field goals, but it’s defensible. The difference, though, is that Skowron made every single PAT he kicked. Jake Smith similarly made 53 of 55 PATs in 2013, and John Bonano went 58-of-59 in 2012. Zendejas’ track record on extra points was bad even before his senior year. That’s why Zendejas has such a reviled reputation among Arizona fans – he could not reliably make extra points, the simplest task a kicker is asked to perform, and it hurt us in crucial spots.

Still, going to the game on Saturday, I was rooting for Zendejas. Enough time has passed that I forgot about the sickening feeling I would get when he lined up to kick, the anger I felt after that loss to Arizona State, and the cynicism that I developed when Zendejas first introduced me to the idea of #collegekicker. My wife and I cheered when he made PATs and yelled at the fans chanting "A-S-U" when he was up to kick.

And while I enjoyed rooting for Zendejas, the same problems he had at Arizona manifested themselves during the Rattlers game on Saturday. Zendejas went 5-for-9 on PATs, which, despite the thinner goal posts of the Arena Football League, is not a good percentage (AFL teams make about 85% of PATs).

At this point, though, I wonder how much of this is actually Zendejas’ fault. He has the yips – for whatever reason, he cannot make extra points. The same way Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t make a simple infield throw, the same way Joel Stave couldn’t throw a 10-yard pass, and the same way Ana Ivanovic couldn’t serve a tennis ball, Alex Zendejas can’t consistently make PATs. I had some hope in the second half of the Rattlers game – Zendejas had a little streak going after starting the game 2-of-5 – before he clanged another one off the uprights with a minute left in the game.

Above all, I feel sorry for Zendejas. He’s from a kicking dynasty with multiple relatives who have kicked at either the college or professional level. Setting aside the PATs, he is not a bad kicker, and he made long field goals at Arizona at a pretty good rate. But he has the yips. I don’t know how he developed them, why he developed them, or if there is anything he can do to fix them. Given his pedigree and given how hard he undoubtedly worked to become a better kicker, his inability to complete a very simple task – making extra points – has to be infuriating, especially because of how that failure hurt his team and caused the vitriol he now hears from Arizona fans. Even at Arizona, Zendejas was in a death-spiral: he couldn't help but think about his problems kicking extra points, which, in turn, made it even more difficult to make those extra points. He couldn't escape.

So I'm done being mad at Zendejas. It's not worth it. While I wish he made those kicks against ASU, I'm sure Zendejas wishes he made them, too. Zack Rosenblatt wrote a great piece about Zendejas about six months ago about how he's not afraid to admit he's Alex Zendejas. The fact that he even has to say that makes me feel terrible for him.

Zendejas has the yips, and I don't know if he'll ever get over them. But the next time he suits up for the Rattlers (no guarantee, given that he's an emergency kicker), I'll plaster myself in Arizona gear again and cheer every time he lines up to kick the same way I would for any other Arizona kicker.