Kicker Billy Cundiff Among Nine Ravens Released
ROOKIE JUSTIN TUCKER WINS PLACEKICKING JOB
By Joe Platania
OWINGS MILLS -- The winds of change that usually blow through the NFL this time of year not only brought a tremendous thunderstorm to Baltimore on Sunday, it also swept out one of the most polarizing figures in Ravens history.
Kicker Billy Cundiff, 32, who has been in the NFL since 2002 and kicked for four teams, was one of nine players the team released before the 4 p.m. Monday deadline to get the roster down to 75 players. Six more must be let go before the deadline.
"These decisions are never easy, and this one was difficult for all of us," head coach John Harbaugh said. "[Cundiff will] kick in the NFL. He's a very good kicker, and an even better person."
Also released were a passel of mostly inconsequential players, who failed to make enough of an impact to stay with the team.
The most notable among them were former practice-squadders such as center Cecil Newton and tight end Davon Drew, the latter a 2009 fifth-round pick, who had used up all of his three-year practice-squad eligibility.
Also let go were quarterback Chester Stewart, wideouts Patrick Williams and Devin Goda, cornerback Jordan Mabin, long snapper Patrick Scales and offensive lineman Addison Lawrence.
Most Ravens fans saw receiver Lee Evans -- whom the Ravens released earlier this year -- and Cundiff as the two main pariahs during the Ravens' 23-20 AFC Championship Game loss at New England last January.
Evans failed to hold on to a perfectly thrown end-zone pass during the game's final minute, which could have sent the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVI. Cundiff's subsequent 32-yard field-goal try -- the same length then-rookie Jim O'Brien made to win Super Bowl V for the Baltimore Colts -- hooked wide left.
To see whether Cundiff could recover from that bitter disappointment, the Ravens brought in undrafted rookie kicker Justin Tucker to compete with him, and Tucker missed just seven kicks in camp while Cundiff missed 17.
Tucker was handed all of the kicking duties during last Thursday's preseason win against Jacksonville -- much to Cundiff's dismay -- and also displayed superior range and displayed an ability to make the ball jump off his foot with extra power with each kick.
Tucker's 53-yarder against the Jaguars, a booming shot that would have been good from at least 10 yards further, may have been the kick that sealed the deal.
But Cundiff's kickoff prowess, which helped him win a Pro Bowl berth in 2010 (along with going 26-for-29 on field goals) was seen as an asset that would help him keep the job, even if he faltered slightly during spring and summer workouts. Cundiff's 84 touchbacks since 2010 are the most in the league.
But the 6-foot, 180-pound Tucker proved to be just as adept at getting the ball deep into the end zone, even putting a kickoff 8 yards into the end zone for a touchback against the Jaguars when Harbaugh was evaluating his kick-coverage team.
Tucker also knew the job could be his if he simply kept making adjustments to his technique.
"Little, small things like keeping my head over the ball, swinging my leg down field as opposed to across my body, getting my plant foot where I want it to be," he said after the Jacksonville game, "pretty simple things, but once you've engrained them into your muscle memory, it's kind of hard to change, and then it comes just right off the bat.
"Took a little work, took a couple of days, and now I feel like I'm striking the ball as confidently as I ever have."
Cundiff's miss in New England capped off a 2011 season that was diametrically opposite to his successful campaign the season before, during which his three misses were tied for the second-fewest in a single year in team history. Cundiff missed an individual team-record nine kicks last year.
But he was still the recipient of a five-year, $15 million extension, which kept him under contract to the team through 2015. With his release, a reported $600,000 will go against this year's cap and $1.8 million will count in 2013.
Cundiff's departure also means that, for the first time, an incumbent kicker lost out to an upstart in a Ravens kicking competition. Matt Stover beat out a solid Scott Bentley in 1999, Steven Hauschka bested Graham Gano in 2009 and Cundiff topped Shayne Graham in 2010.
Cundiff and Graham are also two of the six kickers in NFL history that have kicked seven field goals during a game, Graham having done so against the Ravens in Baltimore in 2007.
Although Cundiff may have been upset with the way this year's kicking battle has progressed, he is experienced enough to have realized on Thursday that the writing was on the wall.
"I know when I came into training camp, a lot of people asked me where my head was at and kind of questioning whether I’d be able to even kick," Cundiff said. "Whatever the case may be, I felt like I proved continually throughout training camp that I came in prepared, and regardless of what's thrown at me, what the situation is, I feel like I’m ready to kick."
But as Cundiff -- and every kicker, for that matter, knows -- it's tough to kick when the wind is blowing, especially the winds of change.
Posted Aug. 26, 2012