Entering free agency after a record-setting season is the ultimate timing in football. But Bears placekicker Cairo Santos was more interested in keeping a good thing going than seeking a financial bonanza.
Not that Santos didn’t get a huge raise after making 30-of-32 field goal attempts — including the last 27 in a row to break Robbie Gould’s franchise record — for a cap-friendly $910,000 last season. But the three-year, $9 million contract he signed March 11 still only puts him 17th among NFL kickers in average annual salary, per overthecap.com.
But clearly, Santos’ priority after bouncing around from one tryout to the next and kicking for three teams over three seasons following his injury-related demise with the Chiefs in 2017 was to stay in his comfort zone. Not only staying with the Bears, but also with special teams coach Chris Tabor, holder Pat O’Donnell and long-snapper Patrick Scales.
“I was telling my agent all along in the process, I’m rooting for this thing to work out,” Santos said. “That’s where my heart is, to remain with those guys.”
O’Donnell and Scales also were free agents who quickly re-signed. As Santos put it, “The band is back together.”
“It was a scenario that I wanted to happen from when we left our exit meetings,” Santos said. “We had great conversations between us three and the coaches and we were hoping to be back together. I think the three of us allows each of us to succeed to our full potential. And we help each other a lot in the way we work out and push each other to grind a little harder in the weight room, to shag balls, kick an extra set or go down to Soldier [Field]. I think I had a tear in my eyes and just happy having those guys together in the locker room.”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace has to be wishing he could solve every position quandary as well as he fixed the kicker issue he helped initiate by cutting Robbie Gould prior to the start of the 2016 season.
After three problematic seasons with Connor Barth, Mike Nugent, Santos and Cody Parkey, then the eight-kicker tryout circus in 2019, Pace suddenly has too many good kickers. Eddy Pineiro provided much-needed reliability in 2019 — making 23-of-28 field goal attempts, including his last 11 in a row.
And when Pineiro suffered an injury in training camp in 2020, Pace signed Santos, who was even better. Santos’ 93.8 percentage broke Robbie Gould’s single-season record of 89.7. He kicked a 55-yarder against the Panthers. He kicked a game-tying 51-yarder with 1:13 left in regulation against the Saints. And he was 4-for-4 (48, 42, 42, 35) in a 33-27 victory over the Vikings in Week 15.
It was a tough break for Pineiro, but a fitting one for Santos, who lost his job with the Chiefs in similar fashion. After being put on injured reserve with a groin injury early in the 2017 season, the Chiefs signed Harrison Butker off the Panthers’ practice squad and Butker almost immediately won the job — making 38-of-42 field goals (90.5%).
That sent Santos on the comeback trail, where nagging groin injuries threatened his career. His brief stint with the Bears in 2017 as a replacement for Barth ended because of a recurrence of the injury. The perseverance to get here was more physical than mental, though now that he’s back, it’s probably both.
“It was sort of a week-to-week thing and I took advantage of that to make it to a long-term [contract],” Santos said. “It’s a dream come true to have a home again, something that I’ve been searching for the last several years. It means a lot to have that — I don’t want to call it stability because as a kicker you’re always on your toes — but just to see the future more than just one week at a time.”