The NFL kicker is under a different kind of pressure than any other player in the NFL. For an intense moment, all attention, and sometimes the weight of a game, is on this one man. When it comes down to it, what any team wants most from a kicker is the ability to finish under pressure. Sure, teams would love to carry a kicker that can nail 60 yard field goals, but if he doesn't have the mettle to nail the shorter kicks when it's fourth down and three points could make or break the team, he's not the guy.
On Sunday January 22, 2012, Billy Cundiff wasn't the guy.
Despite Cundiff's ill-fated miss from 32 yards, which ended the 2012 AFC championship game with the Ravens three points short of the New England Patriots, the organization has told Cundiff the job is his to lose. Even when they brought in rookie kicker Justin Tucker, it was simply a routine move to give a kicker some preseason competition.
However, Tucker has complicated the situation—by being outstanding. Cundiff boasts a strong preseason field goal completion percentage in the upper 80's. Tucker is hovering right around 95. (Percentages are estimates due to the fact that stats from Sunday and Monday practices are not readily available. It is reported that Cundiff bested Tucker by one on Sunday.) Both kickers are perfect in preseason games, Cundiff being 2 for 2 and Tucker 3 for 3. Tucker has overall been more accurate and shown a stronger leg, making a 63 yard attempt in front of 20,000 fans at a practice at M&T Bank stadium.
The most intriguing part of that battle is, perhaps, psychological. Conventional wisdom says a team takes a solid veteran over an impressive rookie eight days a week (and as many times as needed on Sundays.) However, the veteran in this case doesn't come without baggage. Cundiff was greeted with a chorus of boo's as he took his first steps in front of a home crowd since the devastating loss that ended the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
By all accounts, Cundiff appears upbeat and confident.
“This isn't necessarily a competition between myself and Justin,” Cundiff told reporters following Friday's preseason game, “This is really a competition with myself and how good I can be.”
Still, it would be an anomaly if the kicker's big miss didn't creep back into his psyche down the line. In 1991, Buffalo Bills' Scott Norwood missed a game winning field goal with eight second left in the Super Bowl to give the New York Giants a one-point win over Norwood and his Bills. The following season—his last in the NFL—he had a career low field goal completion percentage of 62.1.
Gary Anderson, in 1998, missed a 38 yarder that would have clenched the NFC championship game for the Minnesota Vikings. Up until the miss, Anderson had boasted an unprecedented perfect season, going 39 for 39 on field goals. The next season, his success rate was a career low 63.3%.
Another factor in terms of retaining Cundiff over the rookie is Cundiff's overall body of work. While he had a Pro-bowl season in 2010, completing 89.7% of his field goals, Cundiff completed just 75.7% of his field goals in 2011. More importantly, over his eight year career, his field goal completion rate is 76.7.
So do the Ravens roll the dice on a rookie or take a chance with a veteran who has average career stats and a major mental hurdle to overcome? Most local pundits still give Cundiff the edge. With plenty of practices and two preseason games left to go, the kicking battle will continue. How it plays out and what decision the organization makes will certainly impact the fate of the 2012 Ravens.