Near the end of the first quarter last Thursday when the Bears hosted Carolina, kicker Cairo Santos lined up for a 49-yard field goal and drilled the ball through the uprights just as a penalty marker was thrown.
A false start by the Bears pushed the field goal unit back five yards and forced Santos to attempt another long kick. As a 10-year veteran, Santos knew how detrimental a miss would be in that moment, but he was also confident he could nail the second attempt. So when coach Matt Eberflus looked at him, Santos expressed his desire to kick again.
Just as Santos pictured, the 54-yard attempt went off without a hitch.
"It's a difficult kick and I know the consequences of missing a kick in pretty much the middle of the field when we're down in a game," Santos told ChicagoBears.com. "But I really had the confidence that I could make it. And to go out and show the team that if I say I can kick from this range, I want to show you that you can count on me."
Santos earned that trust from the Bears locker room and then some, making two more field goals in the 16-13 win. The latter of those two, a 39-yarder, marked his 200th career field goal.
"Automatic — I think Cairo's automatic," defensive tackle Justin Jones said after the Thursday night win. "If it was a 99-yard field goal, we're gonna line up for it. I think it's going in every time. That's the confidence we have in Cairo as a team which is good. You want to have the confidence in your kicker knowing he can ice the game, and that's a blessing in disguise because some teams don't have that."
Santos' top priority is being the guy who gives his teammates "peace of mind" that he can "save the drive or win a game," adding that trust from them "is the best compliment he can get."
Still, reaching that milestone of 200 career field goals was undeniably special for Santos, who didn't learn of his achievement until after the game.
"I think the field goals made is still really cool because it's just a reflection of how long you've played in the NFL," Santos said. "Reaching ten years is an achievement that is something to be very proud of. It's very hard to stay in this league.
"The one thing I like to always stay good at is the field goal percentage. And that's been awesome here with the Bears. I work every day to keep it high because it's something that means a lot, especially at a place that many consider to be tough to kick at."
“I came to the hardest place to kick to try and save my career. It was either going to end here or it was going to restart. I think it was a challenge from Day 1, just to mentally be locked in to kick at the toughest place. I think I still feel that way.” Cairo Santos
Since Santos returned to Chicago in 2020 for his second stint with the Bears — his first came in 2017 — the Brazilian has been constant for his team. In the last four seasons, Santos has a 91.4 made field goal percentage, topping the 84.8% during his four years in Kansas City.
The majority of the veteran's milestone moments have occurred in Chicago, like hitting his career-long 55-yard field goal in 2020, playing in his 100th career game in 2021 or setting the franchise record with a streak of 40 consecutive field goals made between 2020 and 2021.
While the last four years of Santos' career have been marked by consistency and growth, he didn't have complete confidence it would pan out the way it has when he signed with Chicago on Aug, 25, 2020.
After starting his career with three-and-a-half strong years in Kansas City, Santos suffered two injuries in 2017, both of which landed him on injured reserve. His first stint on IR resulted in the Chiefs releasing him in October. While he was picked up by the Bears just over a month later, he only played two games before heading back to IR, ending his first go-around in Chicago.
Between 2018 and 2019, he bounced around from training camp with the Jets to games with the Rams, seven games in Tampa Bay to five appearances in Tennessee. Then, he got another call from the Bears.
"I always say that I think Chicago ended up being exactly what I needed for my career at the time," Santos said. "I came here after two years of injuries and not performing the way I was performing at the start of my career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I wouldn't say I [was] towards the end of my career, but it's like, you're a veteran and if you don't start performing, young guys come in and replace you."
Santos needed a change both physically and mentally. Between 2018 and 2019, his field goal percentage averaged a career low of 67%. His career wasn't at the point he had always envisioned.
When he entered the league at 22 years old, Santos felt his strongest. He thought his leg was as powerful and explosive as it would ever be. He didn't expect to be a player that hit his prime later in his career.
But in 2020 when he arrived back in Chicago at the lowest point of his career, Santos revitalized himself and reinvented his own path.
"I came to the hardest place to kick to try and save my career," Santos said. "It was either going to end here or it was going to restart. I think it was a challenge from Day 1, just to mentally be locked in to kick at the toughest place. I think I still feel that way."
Facing the unpredictable elements that the Windy City brings eight or nine times a year at Soldier Field, Santos knows his A-game is required each day. Whether it's the wind taking the kick in a certain direction or the cold air not allowing the ball to fly, different challenges have always surfaced for kickers in Chicago.
For Santos, it doesn't matter whether he's had a successful few games or practices. He starts every day like it's a soccer game tied at 0-0. Instilling that mindset is something that has fueled Santos' consistency in the second phase of his career.
When reflecting on his success in Chicago, Santos also credits his ability to turn the setbacks throughout his 10-year career into lessons he can still learn from today. One of those learning experiences came in 2022 when he missed a 56-yard field goal in Atlanta.
While Santos felt he had the leg strength to make the kick, his "contact was poor," causing the attempt at breaking his career-long field goal to fall short. So heading into the offseason, he wanted to work on keeping his routine and technique the same no matter if the kick was short or long. Instead of worrying about the distance, Santos focused on what he could always control — staying consistent in how he struck the ball.
That shift has led Santos to making four field goals from 52+ yards through 10 weeks this season, a new accomplishment for the vet.
"The majority of the kicks I was doing in practice were from 50-plus just to trust that my leg can get the ball there," Santos said. "It's paying off. A lot of the field goals I've made from 50-plus, I can say that I struck it 100% exactly the way I wanted.
"To have the opportunity to do that in games and show that the improvement – because of the lessons I learned – is real. It's something that I'm proud of and that's part of the grind that I really enjoy."
As Santos continues to navigate a long career that at one point didn't seem attainable, he feels grateful for the "fresh start" Chicago provided him. Reaching so many career achievements with the Bears, especially the 100 appearances and 200 field goals, has given him a new perspective on his time in the NFL.
While he once viewed himself as a "former Chief," he has now played more games and knocked through more field goals in Chicago. Santos is proud to finally say, "OK, I'm a Bear. This is home."
"Mentally, in 2020, I overcame a lot because I thought it would be my last opportunity," Santos said. "Obviously, it worked out. So, with everything that kicking here teaches me, I try to always use that to keep going because that's what I think I needed at that time in my career.
"That's what has helped me have these numbers that I'm having here. I knew it was possible, but it came at a great time that kind of rescued my career and in a tough place. It's just something that I'm proud of to have as a Bear."