Kicking the Competition


Kickers in the NFL get challenged every year in training camp, but Matt Stover has defeated all comers his entire career.

Now, as Stover prepares for his 19th season in the NFL, things are no different.

But even though the veteran kicker is facing competition from rookie free agent Piotr Czech, Stover continues to follow his typical training routine, trusting that his steady demeanor and accurate leg will find him with the Ravens for yet another campaign.

As a player who focuses on a methodical series of mechanics that never differ from kick to kick, Stover is getting used to a new coaching staff that hasn't seen him operate up close.

"The only change for me is my assistant coach, Jerry Rosburg," Stover said after Wednesday's morning practice. "He and I are very eye-to-eye, and he creates a situation for success for us punters and kickers. You can't ask for any more than that."

With the franchise since 1991, Stover made the move to Baltimore in 1996, putting together an impressive resume along the way. He is currently fourth on the NFL's all-time scoring list with 1,822 points and holds the record for most consecutive games with a field goal, a streak of 38 from 1999-2001.

And Stover has shown minimal signs of wear, evidenced by a 93.3 percent field goal success rate in 2006. He even earned an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor last year in Week 6 and kicked a game-winner in Week 4 as time expired.

With Stover's credentials, his reputation preceded himself with the coaches.

"His record speaks for itself," said Rosburg. "He's a guy that has developed a skill that is highly valuable, and he's very, very good at it. He knows himself very well. He knows how to kick the ball straight. He's got great tempo. He knows what he's doing, and that's why he's been able to do it for so long.

"If it were that easy, there'd be more people who'd be able to do it."

The Ravens are asking Stover to do more than split the uprights, however.

Head coach John Harbaugh and Rosburg are looking for someone that can also kick off, whether that means Stover splitting the duties or keeping two kickers in the fold. Stover hasn't even ruled out the possibility of Czech taking his spot, should the rookie excel in the preseason.

The 40-year-old has been in the league for too long to assume anything.

"I don't know if they're going to carry another guy," Stover said. "I don't even know if I'm going to be the guy. All that you do is train and prepare yourself to do it."

Stover has handled much of the kickoff duties for the Ravens in recent years, only sparingly deferring to punter Sam Koch.

It is something he is comfortable with, just not necessarily at this point. Stover doesn't typically test his leg on the long distances until the late preseason contests.

Due to the renewed focus on special teams in Harbaugh's version of training camp, Stover has been getting quite a workout.

"I plan on doing the kickoffs," he confidently stated. "Basically, they said they would like me kicking off in the first week of the preseason. That's not typical for me. I usually wait a couple of weeks and then get into it."

To counter the extra reps, Stover has adjusted his kicking schedule. On some days, he will boot less than 10 balls.

On Wednesday, Stover carried the full load, missing only one field goal from 55 yards that definitely had the distance, but wavered to the right. It is those kicks from over 40 yards that cause others to question Stover's "Automatic" nickname.

"Today I didn't [take some time off], but there are days when I only kick a few balls," he said. "The reason is to keep fresh and not over-kick. Hey, I'm 40 years old. It's about recovery nowadays. The muscles don't respond as well, and I know that, so I have to train accordingly."

Czech, on the other hand, possesses the leg strength to consistently nail the end zone for touchbacks, but his accuracy and reliability can be suspect. The 6-foot-5 kicker converted a 56-yarder Wednesday, which followed a successful 51-yard boot the previous day.

To Stover, the kicking situation is something with which he's always had to deal.

"I understand what they want and why, because they don't know me, therefore they need to evaluate me, I'm fine with that," he explained. "I came in ready to kick off, and continue to think that I'm going to do it until I'm told otherwise."

Harbaugh may have created what he calls an "Over 30 Club" to rest certain players, but Stover is hoping to bring attention to his personal "40s Association," as well.

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