The last time Cairo Santos kicked in an NFL game, he missed left, he missed right, he missed short. Then he missed left again.
The former Tennessee Titans kicker missed four field goal attempts in a loss to the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 6 last year. The Titans cut Santos the next day.
It was a brutal afternoon and a kicker’s worst nightmare. Santos, the first Brazilian-born NFL player, called it a “freak day.”
“I’ve always said, nobody’s immune to a day like that,” Santos said. “So you just kind of always have to stay humble after great games where you go 5-for-5, or games that you struggle.”
The Bears are pinning their hopes at kicker on Santos, at least for a few weeks. He is not on the active roster yet, as of Thursday afternoon, but he is expected to be with the team for Sunday’s season opener at Detroit.
Last year's starting kicker Eddy Pineiro has been moved to injured reserve with a groin injury. Pineiro must remain on IR for at least three weeks.
Santos, 28, kicked for three full seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2014 through 2016. He started 2017 in Kansas City, but injured his groin and wound up getting cut midway through the season. He signed with the Bears later that year and kicked in two games with Chicago, but the groin injury worsened and he wound up on IR and in need of surgery.
The Bears were the first in a string of four teams Santos played for during 2017, 2018 and 2019, following his stint with the Chiefs.
“Chicago helped me through that [surgery] recovery,” Santos said. “[I] spent the last couple years signing with teams, and filling in mid-seasons, and changing head coaches, and [going through] the process, still trying to regain the strength that I knew I had back in the Kansas City days.”
Santos hopes he has regained that strength. He made every kick in a dress rehearsal scrimmage Aug. 29 at Soldier Field – three field goals and five extra points.
The Bears planned all along to bring in a second kicker this season. The team would be in a tough spot if COVID-19 were to strike its kicker just days before a game. Head coach Matt Nagy didn’t want any chance of going into a game without such a vital, and specialized, position.
But Pineiro going down with a groin injury presents a golden opportunity for Santos. He will be the Bears’ kicker to start the year, and he will have a chance to prove he still belongs in the league – whether that’s with the Bears or elsewhere long term.
“Cairo is a pro's pro,” Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “I know you talk about those things the last couple years, but I think he's 100% healthy now and I'm watching a player make field goals. So that's why we took him, at the end of the day, because I think he's going to be consistent and he understands what it's like to kick [at Soldier Field].”
Nagy was an assistant coach at Kansas City during Santos’ three and a half seasons kicking for the Chiefs. In that time, Santos made 84.8% of his field goal attempts, including 7-of-12 from 50 yards or more.
“Knock on wood, but he’s making a lot of kicks right now,” Nagy said Thursday.
Santos competed in a kicking competition in San Diego over the offseason, essentially trying to catch an NFL team’s eye. After a successful first three years in the league, his odyssey from team to team, and battling the groin injury, has opened his eyes to how difficult this job is.
Now, he has a chance at redemption after those four kicks in Tennessee last year.
There might never be a more opportune time to try to prove oneself as a kicker than playing in an indoor stadium with no fans. Sunday in Detroit presents, quite literally, perfect conditions.
“I thrive on situations I have to prove myself,” Santos said. “I like that atmosphere and the spirit that you get from just having to fight for a job. So I like that fire, that keeps me going.”