Eisenberg: Ravens Would Be Second-Guessed Either Way


I've heard it suggested that the Ravens' decision to go with Justin Tucker over Billy Cundiff is their biggest gamble since John Harbaugh took over in 2008. I don't agree.

Sure, there's risk in going with a rookie kicker when you're dreaming of playing into January. No matter how exceptional he has looked, Tucker has never kicked a regular-season NFL field goal. His track record remains blank, always an unsettling prospect to a degree.

But it was a bigger risk for Harbaugh to put his inaugural NFL team in the hands of a rookie quarterback in 2008 – a rookie quarterback who hadn't even played major college football, for that matter. That gamble paid off.

It was also a bigger risk to let Graham Gano and Steve Hauschka, with exactly one regular-season NFL field goal between them, battle it out to replace Matt Stover in 2009. That gamble didn't work out so well.

Tucker has looked far better this year than those two ever did three years ago. He had to plainly out-kick Cundiff, an established veteran, to win the job, and that's exactly what he did, exhibiting spectacular leg strength and steadiness and really leaving the Ravens almost no choice but to pick him.

He has looked so promising that it really would have been a bigger risk for the Ravens not to go with him.

Yes, Cundiff had far more experience and a track record that indicates he almost surely would have fulfilled the job description – he also looked sharp in camp and the Washington Redskins have reportedly quickly signed him, a testament to his prospects as a candidate. But I believe some of his Baltimore teammates were going to have private doubts about him in the clutch after his big miss at the end of the AFC title game last January. That's not ideal.

Putting the specter of that haunting game behind them wasn't necessarily a factor in the Ravens' decision – they were ready to go with Cundiff until Tucker exceeded their expectations – but given such a suitable alternative, they probably don't mind taking it off the table entirely.

Is that fair to Cundiff? Of course not. He handled his moment of infamy with dignity and deserved the chance to prove he could overcome it. He says the Ravens promised him that chance as long as he came back and kicked well, which he did.

Against that backdrop, the frustrations he expressed after last week's preseason game were understandable. He really did nothing wrong other than open the door to this whole scenario with his big miss.

But in the end, Cundiff merely experienced that moment of professional mortality that is so common in today's business world. His employers simply found someone who was younger and cheaper and could also do the job. Sorry. Thanks for your hard work. Hope you understand.

Was Tucker's lesser salary a factor? Sure. Salary cap implications are a factor in every move that most NFL teams make. Savings are always valued.

The Ravens also took into account that Tucker's powerful leg could extend their overall field-goal range, as Cundiff has only made one outside of 50 yards since 2006.

"I would say that there were a lot of factors. That's one of the factors," Harbaugh said of Tucker's potentially longer range.

Their decision will be second-guessed as soon as Tucker misses a kick, which he is bound to do. I can already hear the chorus. They should have stuck with Billy.

But they would have been second-guessed just as much had they gone with Cundiff. As soon as he missed one, the chorus opposing him would have sounded in crescendo.

My take is the Ravens considered none of that. They cut out the noise and simplified their decision, boiling it down to one basic question: Who is kicking better right now?

The answer was slightly surprising, but also surprisingly clear. The majority of the NFL's better kickers enter the league as undrafted free agents, and the Ravens saw enough from Tucker to believe he could be one of those success stories. Like Cundiff, he certainly appears ready to fulfill the job description. Make most of your kicks. Come though in the clutch. He never missed a big college kick, according to his coach.

We will see what happens, but some gambles aren't as risky as others.

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