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When it comes to kickers, most NFL teams belong to one of two groups. There are those with The Guy, a strong, dependable kicker who sticks around so long he becomes an institution. Then there are the less fortunate teams that eternally shuffle through kickers in search of The Guy, experiencing their share of heartache along the way.
The Ravens, for the longest time, were one of the lucky few in the first group. They had Matt Stover, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, dead-solid-perfect in the clutch, a dictionary definition of The Guy. Along with the Lions, who have relied on Jason Hanson since 1991, and the Broncos, who had Jason Elam for 15 years, the Ravens were one of the few teams that never had to worry about their kicker.
But they're in the other group now. They parted ways with Stover before the 2009 season, believing Steve Hauschka, 24, could replace him. You know how that worked out. Hauschka missed a few too many important kicks and was released. His veteran replacement, Billy Cundiff, brought stability, hitting 18 of 23 attempts, but never faced a do-or-die game-winner that serves as the ultimate test. And Stover, 42, wound up kicking in the Super Bowl for the Colts, as if it weren't already clear just how badly the Ravens had erred.
Now, as year two of Life Without Stover beckons, the Ravens are having to become accustomed to life in the other group. Who will kick for them in 2010? Who knows? Cundiff was retained as a restricted free agent, but the Ravens reportedly have talked to several available veterans, Shayne Graham and Neil Rackers. They're having to shop.
The goal is to avoid becoming one of those teams that sorts through kickers like a poker player sorts through cards, a team whose fans utter prayers every time a field goal goes up. The Redskins have used 14 kickers since 2000. The Cowboys have used 12. The Ravens don't want to go there.
Many fans would love for them to bring back Stover and it makes sense on one level. The Ravens reached the second round of the playoffs without a high-octane offense in 2009 and have upgraded their receiving corps, seemingly brightening their prospects for 2010. If they're gearing up for a Super Bowl run, they could certainly forsake any long-range plans and go with a solid short-term fix such as Stover. He can still kick. He would do well.
But the odds of his coming back appear slim. He told The Baltimore Sun earlier this month that he would love to retire as a Raven, but his agent told the paper, "I don't really see (a 2010 return) happening." He might not kick anywhere.
Frankly, at his age, he wouldn't be a whole lot different from Cundiff or the other veterans the Ravens are contemplating. They all have their positive and negative qualities. Graham was solid for most of 2009 but wobbled in the playoffs, as did Rackers. Stover remains consistently accurate, but his leg just isn't as strong; his longest made field goal in 2009 was 43 yards.
If you're expecting the Ravens to sort through these veterans and find The Guy, a kicker to ride for 18 years, forget it. The way to find a top-flight kicker is to identify a talented young guy and let him grow, as you do with a young quarterback. If you're smart and lucky, you get The Guy. The Browns did when they found 24-year-old Phil Dawson on the scrap heap in 1999. The Panthers did when they signed 26-year-old John Kasay as a free agent in 1995. (Both are still booting for those teams more than a decade later.) The Ravens were trying to do that with Hauschka. The move actually made sense in that context. They just made it too soon, and with the wrong guy.
To avoid joining the Redskins and Cowboys in Kicker Hell, the Ravens eventually are going to have to invest a draft pick or sign a top free agent, not one of these circulating veterans. Until then, like every team searching for The Guy, their goal is just to avoid a disaster.
They already knew how fortunate they were to have Stover for so long. Now, they really know.