KANSAS CITY, Mo. – So far this season, the Chiefs most productive player is the smallest guy in their locker room.
Kicker Cairo Santos is listed at 5-8, 160 pounds. In reality, Santos has bulked up and now “tips” the scales at 176 pounds. He remains only 5-8.
But the little man from Brazil has been huge for the 2015 Chiefs as they sit four games into their schedule holding a disappointing 1-3 record.
In Week 4 against Cincinnati, Santos was seven-of-seven on field goal attempts, a record-setting game for a Chiefs kicker and an effort that put him on the cusp of an NFL record for FG success.
Santos is now 10 of 11 for the season, including hitting two of three kicks from 50 yards or more.
He also ranks among the best toes in the league on kickoffs, with 15 touchbacks and 20 of his 24 kicks reached the end zone. Last season, Santos had only 26 touchbacks in 16 games.
In what has been a season’s start marked by under-achievement, Santos has been a star for the Chiefs.
“I’ve been practicing well, staying over 90 percent in practice and it’s given me a lot of confidence,” Santos said. “It doesn’t matter what wind, what weather we’re getting, we’re going to get through it.”
One of the unique facts of life in the NFL is how many different body shapes and sizes blend together to create a functioning organism called a football team.
As an example, the 2015 Chiefs now start an offensive line that averages 6-5, 312 pounds. The defensive line averages 6-3, 313 pounds. The roster includes a 6-7 tight end and a 5-9 wide receiver. There’s a lineman that weighs 346 pounds and eight players that do not crack the 200-pound mark. It’s the same story across the league’s 32 teams.
Not only is Santos the smallest player in the Chiefs locker room, he’s also the smallest kicker currently in the league.
Only Matt Bryant of the Atlanta Falcons comes close to Santos, as Bryant stands 5-9 and weighs 203 pounds. There are only six other kickers under six feet and 19 of 32 are listed at 200 pounds or more. It’s part of the continuing growth in body size that’s played out at every NFL position group over the last four decades. Not only are the linemen growing, but so are the kickers.
“I meet the kickers from the other teams in pregame and I’m always looking up,” Santos said. “The punters, too. I’m really at the other end of the size spectrum.”
When the Chiefs 2014 season was over, Santos went back home to Brazil for five weeks. He did not kick a football in that time, but he did immediately begin a workout program with a personal trainer in Sao Paulo, using a plan devised for him by the Chiefs strength and conditioning staff.
The team wanted Santos to be stronger going into the 2015 season. That’s on the offseason agenda for most young football players, but it’s not a simple task when the player in question is only 5-8, 160 pounds.
“I wanted to add 10 pounds,” Santos said of his goal in the offseason. “I knew I couldn’t add 10 pounds of muscle. But I added nine pounds and lost two pounds of body fat. I definitely could feel it in my lower body. It’s thicker and stronger, and that’s helped me a lot with kickoffs and field goals.”
Santos lowered his body fat and gained strength to improve the speed in his mechanics. Just like a golfer seeking more distance tries to generate more club-head speed, a kicker seeks the same thing – increased speed in the swing of his leg and his foot meeting ball.
That speed produces distance and it doesn’t matter how tall the kicker stands or how much he weighs; it’s the explosion he can bring with his foot and leg to the ball that counts.
“I’m not a big guy, so adding maximum strength and increasing muscle size isn’t really going to work for me,” Santos said. “I needed to generate more speed and explosion when I strike the ball. Right now, I can really feel the pop when I’m hitting the ball.”
The strength program was heavy on squats, lunges and jumps, along with a lot of running.
“Last year I was tired, I was burned out late in the year,” Santos said. “It’s a long year for a rookie with everything you go through. So this year, knowing what the coaches wanted it made a big difference in how I approached the offseason.”
The Chiefs had an established kicker going into the 2014 training camp in Ryan Succop. But special teams coordinator Dave Toub was looking for more consistency and reliable success from distance for field goals and kickoffs.
The “bulked up” Santos is a lot closer to that vision than he was last year as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane University.
“It was one of the things we talked about when the season was over, was him gaining some weight and putting more muscle on his lower body,” said Toub. “I think he did a good job of that. He’s definitely hitting the ball a lot better. It looks like he’s got five to six yards more of leg strength, so it’s paying off with the touchbacks.”
It’s not just the distance of the kickoffs, but the hang time as well.
“He’s hanging them up 4.2 (seconds) plus, which is great and if they decide to come out with it eight-deep with a 4.2 hang time, we’ve got a real good shot of getting down the field,” Toub said. “Anytime a team comes out with it, there’s always a chance that they could pop one. If things go wrong – I mean, that’s why we come out with it. We try to put pressure on the kickoff team.
“The kickoffs that go out of the end zone, we’ll take every one of those. We love them.”
There hasn’t been much to love so far in the 2015 season for Chiefs fans.
Without the little man on the roster, it would be even worse. That’s why Cairo Santos must continue to do big things.