Ravens' Stover plays it straight

Veteran kicker chooses reliability over distance

August 16, 2007|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN REPORTER

When Matt Stover watches film from 1991, he sees a cherubic-faced kicker who stands tall, takes his right leg back for what seems like a mile and launches a kick that goes even farther.

It's a memory that brings a wistful smile to Stover's face, which is still youthful for a man who is five months shy of his 40th birthday.

"It was a big swing, a big leg. I was standing straight up and down, I wasn't bending over, and I could kick the ball a clear mile," he recalled. "I got in the league because I had a strong leg, believe it or not. [But] I had to learn that accuracy and consistency were more important than distance."

To make that sacrifice, Stover began bending at the hips, shortening his leg swing and reducing the number of steps leading to the kick.

The result: Stover is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, converting 83.8 percent (408 field goals with 79 misses) of his field-goal attempts. Only former Indianapolis Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt (86.5 percent) has been more consistent.

Stover connected on five field goals in the team's 29-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night. It was the first time Stover had kicked four field goals in a preseason game, and he converted two 50-yarders, which tied Wade Richey for the second-longest field goal in the Ravens' preseason history. (Stover holds the record - a 51-yarder in 1998.)

Making those changes in his approach to kicking field goals illustrates the evolution Stover has undertaken in his 18-season NFL career, all of which has been spent with the Ravens/Cleveland Browns.

"I think it's very applicable for anybody who has lived long enough in a particular career and has been relatively successful to never think that you know everything," he said. "There's always something to learn. You never become complacent because there's always somebody there to take you out of the game."

Stover credits former kickers such as Matt Bahr, Nick Lowry and Norm Johnson for his stance, which features a pronounced bend at the hips to keep his body weight over his feet and improve his accuracy. To prevent his head and shoulders from moving as he approaches the football, Stover extends his right arm forward.

Those changes, however, have forced Stover to give up some distance.

"I used to have a 3-wood on a field goal," said Stover, an avid golfer. "I've backed it down to a 5-iron and now a 7-iron. It's all about getting it up and getting it straight. A 150-yard, 7-iron shot is my 48- to 50-yard field goal."

Special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. said Stover's adaptability has led to his longevity.

"He didn't just walk into this league and all of a sudden become a golden child," Gansz said. "When you look at his technique when he was with the Browns and his technique now, it's changed. ... I think he's been intelligent about the way he's done it, and he has matured as a man, which has helped him mature in this league. And I think that has really helped him."

Stover has kicked in every stadium except Qwest Field (home of the Seattle Seahawks) and University of Phoenix Stadium (Arizona Cardinals). Along the way, he has encountered nearly every weather condition.

One misconception fans have about the kicking game is the impact of wind. While noting that a stiff breeze can alter the trajectory of a football, Stover said many kickers can test the wind during warm-ups and make adjustments.

Stover believes there is a factor more important than wind or the configuration of a stadium. "The big key to me isn't so much the stadium itself as it is the field surface," he said. "Winds are winds. But can I attack the ball on the field surface so that I can actually kick the ball the way I want to? If I know that the wind is right to left and I can't plant hard to push off of my steps hard, then that's a whole another bear. But if I'm in my stadium and I can attack it, I don't care what the wind is doing. I'm going to kick the ball one particular way and, hopefully, I've judged the conditions right to be able to make the field goal."

Stover said that FieldTurf, which is the field surface of choice for the Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and many other organizations, is the best for kicking because of its consistency.

The worst? Natural grass at stadiums such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heinz Field, the Chicago Bears' Soldier Field and the Tennessee Titans' LP Field gets worn down, and after October, damaged grass does not regrow.

To combat slick, wet field conditions, Stover wears a 3/4 -inch cleat on his left shoe to help him plant into the turf and a slightly longer cleat on his right shoe so that his foot doesn't slip when he's pushing into the ball to kick it. "Those are the things that you have to learn to do," he said.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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