Amid chatter, quiet Stover boots doubt

November 23, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

And now, the edited transcript of Sunday's interplay between the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals as Matt Stover prepared for his game-winning 50-yard field-goal attempt with four seconds left.

"Stover!" several Bengals screamed. "Look at me when I talk to you! You're not going to make this field goal! You're going to choke!"

"Shut up!" the Ravens' Jeff Blackshear shot back. "Leave him alone! Let him kick the ball!"

Jonathan Ogden also made himself heard.

"I probably said something that you couldn't put in the paper," he recalled yesterday. "It was to the effect of, `He's going to make this kick, so y'all shut up.' "

And Stover?

"I wasn't listening," he said. "I backed off. You saw me. I'm always on my end of the field, away from those guys. I know what they're going to do. They're going to crush me.

"You just remove yourself from it. You hear it, but you don't pay attention to it."

Besides, Stover had a nervous coach to contend with.

After the officials' review of Aaron Pierce's 4-yard reception, after the Bengals called their final timeout, Brian Billick summoned Stover to the sideline.

"Matt," Billick said. "Where are you from?"

"Dallas," Stover replied, slightly baffled.

"When you were a kid in Dallas, didn't you always used to dream about this moment?"

"Absolutely," Stover replied. "All the time."

Then it hit Stover why Billick was suddenly showing interest in his life story.

"Coach, I'm fine," he told Billick. "I've been at this long enough. You don't have to calm me down. I'm having fun."

With that, Stover returned to the field and made the longest game-winning kick of his 10-year career.

Just when the Ravens were ready to bury the guy -- and rest assured, Billick still has a shovel waiting, or a Joe Nedney lurking -- Stover staged his annual resurrection.

Not that Billick was overly impressed.

"Matt got the special teams Player of the Week," Billick said. "I told him it wasn't for winning the game. It was for making a field goal that prevented me from going out and choking him in front of 46,000 people for the previous kickoff."

Actually, Stover admitted to "bad hits" on three kickoffs, but for one week at least, he figures to be on Billick's good side.

If the Ravens had lost to Cincinnati, now 1-10, the fans would have been after bigger game than the place-kicker.

Billick's lack of faith in Stover was evident the previous week in Jacksonville when the coach opted against two potential game-tying field-goal attempts -- a 45-yarder in the second quarter and a 52-yarder with 3: 07 left.

It was evident again Sunday when Billick opted to take a delay-of-game penalty and punt rather than allow Stover to attempt a 51-yarder with the Ravens trailing 14-3 in the second quarter.

Stover entered the game 6-for-18 in his career on attempts of more than 50 yards, 1-for-4 this season. But Billick said he demonstrated his confidence in the kicker on the play before the game-winning attempt, calling for a pass of 4 yards instead of 10 or 15.

Of course, Billick also said he couldn't bear to watch Stover's kick, claiming that it was his responsibility as head coach to start plotting overtime strategy.

Will "cybercoach" now adjust his precious "parameters" for Stover?

"It depends on the conditions," Billick said. "Those were idyllic conditions. AstroTurf. No wind. Enclosed stadium.

"When I set those parameters, it's like any parameters for any player: What can this guy do? Occasionally, someone has to exceed the bar they set for themselves. When they do, you enhance it."

Billick added, "Anytime a player steps up and meets a challenge, your confidence goes up in him. Will I allow him to take a longer field goal in a given situation than I did before? Yeah, probably."

Either way, Stover said his approach won't change.

"I'm saying to myself, `I can make that kick -- I've got to,' " he said. "I've got to have a positive mind-set so when that situation comes up and he says, `Field goal,' I'm ready to go.

"When it doesn't happen, then I look at it like, `That's his choice. He's got reasons. I'm going to trust him. He's the head coach. And he knows what he's doing.'

"I don't take it personally. If I did, it would make my job a whole lot harder."

And his job is difficult enough.

Stover, 31, was the NFL's all-time field-goal accuracy leader when the Ravens arrived in Baltimore in 1996 (80.6 percent). But by the start of this season, his ranking had dropped to 11th (78.7 percent).

His game-winner Sunday was his second as a Raven -- he hit a 37-yarder to beat the New York Giants in 1997. He also missed potential game-winners against Philadelphia that season, and against Jacksonville and St. Louis in 1996.

This season, he missed five field-goal attempts in his first seven games, and his poor kickoffs prompted the Ravens to sign Nedney. But, just as in '98, Stover started to kick better after his job was threatened.

If Billick is dissatisfied with Stover's kickoffs and doesn't trust him to make 50-yarders, then Stover probably shouldn't be on the team. Then again, it would be difficult for the Ravens to find a more reliable kicker. There simply aren't that many.

When Stover returned home Sunday night, his wife, Debbie, asked him, "Was the team happy for you?" Stover told her yes, adding, "More than anything, Deb, I was happy for the team, happy that we won."

He has lived this life for 10 seasons.

The pressure never ends.

"Does anybody wish it upon themselves? No. But when it happens, you accept it," Stover said.

"You say to yourself, `The pressure is there only if you put it on yourself.' You shrink your world enough to where the outside pressures don't really matter."

The outside pressures were considerable Sunday -- Stover had to overcome the screaming Bengals, the skeptics in his own organization and all of his past demons.

Another season, another revival.

Matt Stover lives.

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