Ravens' Stover driving for more

Amid NFL's most accurate, kicker seeks distance, too

Pro Football

August 21, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Matt Stover is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. Gary Zauner is a special teams guru. Both describe their business with golf analogies, and one is appropriate to explain their differing opinions on where the oldest Raven fits into the team's 2002 plans.

Stover talks about his complete game, of hitting finesse shots and banging it 300 yards off the tee. Zauner? He wants Stover to forget about the long ball and just keep it in the fairway.

Zauner coached Fuad Reveiz, Eddie Murray and Gary Anderson to NFL records during his eight years with the Vikings. The way he talks, it's a done deal that the Ravens will keep rookie free agent J.R. Jenkins to kick off and possibly attempt any last-ditch long-range field goals. But Stover wants to prove that he's still got the stuff that made him the All-Pro kicker in 2000.

"I've been around long enough," Stover said. "I know what's going on. I know what the team's gonna need from an offensive standpoint. I want them to know that even though I'm the oldest guy on the team, I've still got a good leg. I want to make sure that they know that the leg strength isn't dwindling."

Stover's off-season regimen focused on regaining some of the range he lacked during an injury-affected 2001 season. He nailed a 44-yarder in the preseason opener, but in last week's aimless loss to the Jets, he fit right in with misses from 42 and 49 yards. Stover said that a correctable mistake, pushing the ball right, is a byproduct of some tinkering.

"I've been kicking the ball a lot further this year," Stover said. "I made a few adjustments in my form. Because of that, I may not be as accurate as I'd like to be right now. I still know I can kick the long ball when need be. I'll bring that club out if need be, so to speak, then I'll bring out my normal 9-iron that I've been kicking with for a while."

He is 34 years old, and nickel back James Trapp is the only other Raven born in the 1960s. Senior vice president Ozzie Newsome's last season in uniform was 1990, the same year Stover broke into the NFL. A year later, Stover joined Art Modell's franchise, and became its dean during last winter's fire sale, when Rob Burnett moved on to Miami.

Stover will make $800,000 this season, $1 million in 2003, the final year of his contract, but he has been money in the bank. His 13-year career peaked in 2000, when a series of clutch kicks overcame a touchdown drought and kept the Ravens on track to Super Bowl XXXV.

He took a step back last season, when he made a 49-yarder that helped beat Jacksonville in Week 7 on a quadriceps strain that lingered. His reliability - in contrast to counterpart Kris Brown - was the focus of the Steelers' first loss at Heinz Field a week later, but Stover did not convert an attempt beyond 43 yards in the second half of the season, and the Ravens hired Danny Kight to handle kickoffs.

This season, Jenkins is expected to do the same.

"We probably don't have 53 football players," Zauner said of an inexperienced roster. "Because we've got a lot of young guys, we do have the luxury to keep a guy to do that."

Other than long snapper Joe Maese, the special teams were hit with great turnover. Rookie punter Dave Zastudil is Stover's new holder, and in Zauner he has got a coach who has worked with some of the best.

"There are always adjustments you have to make in your career," Stover said. "I've had three special teams coaches, five holders and six snappers. Gary has put a lot of guys into the Pro Bowl, guys I look up to. One thing he does a great job of, he allows me to do my own thing."

Touchdowns and trips to the red zone might be precious commodities for the Ravens, but Zahner doesn't want Stover to be under more pressure than he was in 2000.

"We were just talking about this," Zahner said. "Matt said, `I want to kick the 48-, 49-, 50-yarders.' I told him, `You're trying to kick the ball further, because as you get older, you're trying to show everybody you can still kick far.' I said, `You've just got to stay in that medium range.' When you start talking 46, 48 [yards], there's a 50 percent chance of making it. If it's a tie score, we're gonna punt and back them up, and hopefully get a shot at a closer one."

Stover, 5 feet 11, 178 pounds, made a career because he understood his limits.

In 1983, he was the only sophomore to make the varsity at Lake Highlands, a 5A high school in football-mad Dallas. Stover caught 72 passes in his last two seasons there as an all-District wide receiver, but saw that his athleticism paled in comparison to that of classmate Merton Hanks, who would spend eight seasons as a defensive back with the 49ers, so off he went to Louisiana Tech as a kicker.

In each of the past two seasons, Stover has missed only once on attempts between 30 and 39 yards. His NFL record of consecutive regular-season games with a field goal ended late last season at 38, but he doesn't feel as if he's at a crossroads.

"If I can't kick the ball 50 yards for a field goal, or can't get the ball inside the 5 on kickoffs in normal conditions, I'll know it's time," Stover said, "but I'm a competitor, and you're going to have to rip this jersey off me."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Eagles by 7

Accurate legs

Ravens kicker Matt Stover has combined accuracy with longevity. This season, he could become the most productive among the NFL's all-time percentage leaders (minimum 100 field goals made):

Name FG% FG FGA

Mike Vanderjagt 87.7 114 130

Olindo Mare 84.5 136 161

John Carney 81.5 290 356

Matt Stover 81.4 267 328

Ryan Longwell 80.9 131 162 Source: Ravens

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