Eisenberg: Kicker Call Easy to Criticize

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When I realized the Ravens weren't going to bring back Matt Stover, I had serious doubts. Sure, the guy was 41, but he had won countless games through the years, his clutch kicks bailing out an offense that couldn't reach the end zone. And he was still doing it, nailing a 43-yarder to beat the Titans in the playoffs last season.

Plenty of Ravens fans shared those concerns. But I came to understand the Ravens' reasoning. They wanted deeper kickoffs and more range; Stover's leg wasn't as strong as it once was. They could save a roster spot by going with a field goal specialist who could also kick off. A young guy certainly would be cheaper. And life without Stover was fast approaching, anyway. Might as well get started.

Sure, they were taking a risk, a big one, but I like seeing teams take risks. A team that operates timidly, making strictly vanilla choices, is destined for the bottom of the standings. You have to be forward-thinking, clever, bold.

The Ravens get that. They took a risk last year when they drafted Joe Flacco, pinning their future to a quarterback from the University of Delaware. That gamble has paid off. So did the one they took in 2006 when they traded a high draft pick, which they seldom do, for Steve McNair, thinking he could be the key piece of their playoff puzzle. McNair led the Ravens to a division title.

They took a risk in 2004 when they traded for Terrell Owens, the controversial receiver who refused to come to Baltimore because, well, the little voices he hears told him not to. But the Ravens weren't wrong to go after him. Do you think those 290 balls he caught over the next four seasons would have helped here?

It's not wise to govern your team almost entirely by risk, taking wild shots with drafts, trades, coaching hires, play calls. The Oakland Raiders do. Enough said.

The Ravens scout and draft wisely, maneuver methodically, manage the salary cap – a sound operational framework that frees them to take risks when warranted.

As everyone knows, the Stover risk didn't work out. The Ravens' new kicker, Steve Hauschka, had a powerful leg, but he crumbled mentally, succumbing to the pressure. His kickoffs didn't go so deep and he missed critical field goals. It turned out all that sound reasoning for going with someone else was offset by the simple fact that, unlike Stover, other guys don't just drill kick after kick under pressure.

Now, the Colts are coming here Sunday with Stover, who, gulp, hasn't missed a field goal attempt since joining them in October as a temporary replacement for injured Adam Vinatieri. The sight of him booting for the Irsays will be so painful for the Ravens, such a reminder of their mistake, that you almost wonder if they'd just as soon let Peyton Manning score touchdowns rather than settle for field goals. (Just kidding. I think.)

Understandably, folks are piling on the Ravens now, but it's easy just to jump in and criticize after a risk fails. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been crucified since his failed gamble last Sunday, when he ordered Tom Brady to go for it on fourth-and-2 at his 28 with two minutes to play and the Patriots up six on the Colts. Manning led a winning touchdown drive after the gamble failed, but I thought that was a shrewd risk. With Manning playing brilliantly this season, Belichick figured giving him the ball was tantamount to giving the Colts the game. Why not try to keep him on the sideline if you just need two yards? There was a 60-percent chance of a successful conversion, according to advancednflstats.com. I like those odds.

Shoot, Mr. Football himself, Vince Lombardi, took a crazy risk at the end of the legendary Ice Bowl in 1967. With 16 seconds to play, his Packers were on the Dallas one-yard-line, trailing by three. They had no timeouts left and Lombardi ran a quarterback sneak, knowing the clock probably would run out before another play could be run. If Bart Starr had come up short, the Packers would have lost even though they were in position to kick a tying field goal and force overtime.

You never hear about that because Starr scored, but Lombardi's risk was as crazy as Belichick's. Some work out, some don't. The Ravens' record is good overall. They shouldn't stop taking risks just because they missed one.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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