Cap flexibility puts Ravens in line to give Stover boot

September 08, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Matt Stover kicked his only game-winning field goal as a Raven at Giants Stadium last season. He will return to the scene of his triumph Sunday with his job in jeopardy -- assuming he even lasts that long.

It's a new era, all right.

No one should get too comfortable in that locker room.

For the first time in their three seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens are operating with enough salary-cap flexibility to make in-season personnel changes.

And after games like Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they apparently will show less patience with struggling players than they have before.

The Ravens don't plan to release Harper Le Bel -- they will need him as their backup long snapper even after Brian Kinchen returns from his thumb injury.

But they're so dissatisfied with Stover, vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said yesterday that the team might try out another kicker by tomorrow.

"As we would in any situation, whether it's a receiver, quarterback or running back, we've already put some calls in to agents that have some kickers available," Newsome said.

The Ravens could face competition for a free-agent kicker -- the Oakland Raiders might try to replace Greg Davis, who missed two field-goal attempts Sunday. But at the very least, the team is sending a message to Stover.

Releasing him would amount to a $1.16 million loss -- the $900,000 signing bonus that the Ravens paid him March 1 and his $216,000 salary that became guaranteed when he made the opening-day roster.

An investment that sizable would seemingly ensure Stover of at least one more chance. On the other hand, the Ravens can't stay long with a slumping kicker. They're nearly $2 million under the cap. They can afford a replacement.

Le Bel was the biggest culprit in Sunday's kicking meltdown, but Stover again took responsibility yesterday, saying that he probably would have made all three field-goal attempts he missed if he hadn't rushed his approach to the ball.

"I was a little quick on all of them," the nine-year veteran said. "The timing was 1.22 [seconds] when it should have been about 1.28. That doesn't give the snapper and holder enough time to set up."

Stover converted kicks of 41 and 25 yards, but missed three straight attempts from 42, 42 and 45. He also booted the opening kickoff out of bounds, giving the Steelers possession at their own 40, from where they marched for a field goal.

The demise of the kicking game was devastating on a day when the Ravens went 57 minutes without a touchdown. For a team lacking dominant offensive players, a team that could struggle to reach the end zone, field goals assume even greater importance.

Stover has now missed eight of his last 10 attempts dating to last season. He has his excuses -- two poor snaps Sunday, two blocked kicks last December, two more in high winds. But in the bottom-line world of the NFL, slumps of that magnitude often get kickers released.

"We get the opportunity to evaluate and critique everyone's performance. When we see there is a steady decline, we do become concerned," Newsome said. "But we didn't just start Sunday. We checked it out in the preseason, too."

Stover made eight of nine attempts in the preseason, but he understands the business. After flopping against Pittsburgh, he was not surprised to learn that the Ravens might bring in another kicker to challenge him.

"They have to do what they have to do," Stover said. "I understand if they have some doubts with me from that game. I had a couple of bad kicks, a couple of adjustments I should have made, but didn't."

Stover's timing was clearly affected on the second of Le Bel's poor snaps -- he had to stop and restart his approach. But even during the game, he sensed that he, too, was at fault.

"I've been that fast and still made them," Stover said. "But when you are that fast, everything has to be perfect. From 42, 42 and 45 yards out, I didn't give those guys enough of an opportunity to get the job done as best they could."

A simple adjustment?

"It's correctable, but it's got to come from Matt," special teams coach Scott O'Brien said. "He was not in control at the ball. He was out of control. He didn't give himself any time to adjust to any ball placement, any snap placement, anything."

Whatever, Stover will now face even greater scrutiny, and he knows it. He spent most of last season as the all-time NFL leader in field-goal accuracy, but has not been a particularly clutch kicker in Baltimore.

In '96, he missed two potential game-winners in the final seconds. The Ravens recovered from the first, a 32-yard attempt, to defeat St. Louis in overtime. But they lost to Jacksonville in OT after Stover was wide right on a 49-yarder.

Last season, he kicked a 37-yarder with 34 seconds left to beat the Giants, but later missed a 53-yard attempt against Philadelphia in an overtime tie, and a 44-yarder against Cincinnati with 9: 03 left in a 16-14 defeat.

"Matt fundamentally is an extremely good kicker," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "In practice he puts it through the uprights just the way you want it. We've got to get him back in that groove again."

If not, they'll just get someone else.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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