Bears kicker Cairo Santos made several crucial field goals during a record-breaking 2020 season, but his watershed moment came after one that he missed.
Eager to put a once-promising career that was derailed by a nagging groin injury back on track, Santos had been placing an overwhelming amount of pressure on himself when he missed kicks during short stints with the Rams, Buccaneers and Titans in 2018-19.
So, when he hooked a 46-yard field goal attempt wide left last Sept. 27 in Atlanta, Santos figured he'd careen down the same destructive path. Only this time, the Brazilian native decided that enough was enough. He accepted the miss and moved on, not allowing it to consume him.
Coincidence or not, Santos followed by connecting on his next 27 straight field goals to end the season, setting a Bears record.
"I think there was a moment there after my last miss against the Falcons where there was a little flashback that popped in my head of the previous teams I was on trying to come back from that injury," Santos said.
"I always felt that pressure. I put that pressure on myself that this has to be the opportunity that I bounce back. How many more opportunities am I going to keep getting? I have to make this one. I thought about this with the Bucs, with the Titans. So, there we go again; I missed a kick in Atlanta.
"[But] I just kind of accepted it, as if it's meant to be. [I thought] 'I'm going to keep grinding, so if I get another chance here in this game, I'm going to attack that kick to make it. If I'm done, I've got to move on.' I felt like I started playing looser and put everything in God's hands and went one kick at a time and here we are."
Santos stressed that he wasn't worried about getting cut after his errant field goal try in Atlanta; only that from then on he would focus solely on making his next kick and not obsess about when his career was going to conclude.
"It was just like, 'I want an opportunity and if it's to end right now, I accept it and I'll be happy moving forward, moving from football,'" Santos said. "Or if it's to restart a career, that's exactly what I want, so I just kind of took one kick at a time as they came and just tried to knock them through.
"It's the same mentality that I look for to keep going. It was a life-changing year for me with everything that happened. So right now, I just keep attacking one kick at a time, like I did last year."
The new outlook served Santos well. Not only did he set a Bears record for consecutive field goals in 2020, but his 93.8 percent success rate (30 of 32) was also the best in franchise history. It was reminiscent of how Santos performed during his first four NFL seasons with the Chiefs from 2014-17, when he made 84.8 percent of his field goal attempts (89 of 105).
In the offseason, Santos was rewarded with a long-term contract extension that will enable him to maintain the same mindset he developed after last year's missed field goal in Atlanta.
"The plan for me is just to get better myself as a kicker every offseason and going into every season reaching higher goals and never getting complacent," Santos said. "That was the focus going in after we got the extension done and knowing this would be my home and [I'm] very happy about it. It was just, 'How can I keep improving?' The bar is always going to be rising."