Old reliable

Nearing 40, kicker Matt Stover still splits the uprights with regularity, and his durability is reaching Ripken-esque proportions

Ravens Weekend

October 12, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

Matt Stover is an anomaly in the NFL. In a position that often lends itself to playing for multiple teams, Stover has shattered the stereotype of the vagabond kicker. In a job that can be one misstep away from a shortened career, Stover's durability draws comparison to another, more legendary, Ironman.

Maintaining a much lower profile while playing in the same town, Stover has become the Cal Ripken Jr. of NFL kickers.

"He's the most reliable and depend- able football player I've had in 45 years," said Art Modell, the majority owner of the Ravens and Cleveland Browns for 43 of them.

Now in his 18th NFL season and his 12th with the Ravens since coming with Modell from Cleveland, Stover attributes his own streak to a combination of hard work, good fortune and a strong faith. Despite his share of injuries, Stover has not missed a game because of one.

"You never go into a game thinking you're going to get hurt," Stover, 39, said this week, sitting in the team cafeteria in Owings Mills after practice and his own vigorous post-practice workout. "I've kicked in lots of pain before. I do everything to stay out here on the field.

"But I have to say that God has shed a lot of favor on me as well. It's as simple as me getting hit on a kickoff. What would you do in the weight room to prevent that from happening? I want to stay healthy so they don't have to get somebody else."

In a season where the defense has been erratic and the red-zone offense often unproductive, Stover's steadiness has allowed the Ravens to stay afloat. Three field goals against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday produced one victory, a 46-yarder at the final gun two weeks earlier at home against the Arizona Cardinals another.

Given the way his team's 2007 season has gone, a strong case also can be made for Stover being considered the Ravens' most valuable player.

"It's a real comfort zone knowing that Matt Stover is here," Ravens coach Brian Billick said this week.

Sunday, when the Ravens host the St. Louis Rams at M&T Bank Stadium, there will many people there hoping that the game's outcome will be decided early. But if it comes down to another potential game-winner, Stover doesn't seem to mind.

"Am I saying, `Let's blow them out?' Heck yeah, but if it comes down to me, I've got to be ready," Stover said. "Is it more exciting that the team hung together and still won? Sure. Can you live on that? Yes, but it eventually wears you out."

At an age when many kickers have lost accuracy and leg strength, if not broken down altogether, Stover is still consistent and his right leg still sturdy, as he proved Sunday with a 49-yard field goal at Monster Park. The nine points by the Ravens were their fewest ever in a victory.

Stover's longevity, as well as his loyalty to the Ravens, should not be overlooked.

Only a handful of kickers have played longer than Stover. The two kickers listed ahead of Stover for career field goals made - the ageless Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson - played for five teams. George Blanda played for four, Jan Stenerud for three.

Of the league's current kickers, only the Carolina Panthers' John Kasay and the Denver Broncos' Jason Elam come close. Kasay has played 17 years, the past 13 with the Panthers, but missed the entire 2000 season with an injury and all but two games in 2002. Elam, in 15 seasons with the Broncos, missed five games in 2000.

Close calls

Not that Stover's streak has never been in jeopardy.

In 1992, his second year with the Browns, Stover played all but four games with a bulging disc in his back, making 21 of 29 attempts. In 2001, Stover played the entire season with a pulled quadriceps, making 30 of 35 attempts. Ranked third all-time with a field-goal percentage of 83.7, Stover is 13-for-16 this season, with two of his misses coming in a loss at Cleveland two weeks ago.

It says as much about Stover's personality as about his penchant for making game-winning kicks - the one against the Cardinals was his 13th - that he is still employed while Mike Vanderjagt, the NFL's career leader in field-goal percentage, is not because his foot often found its way into his mouth.

"I don't think he gets the respect because of how long he's played, I think he gets the respect because of how consistent he is," Ravens veteran special teams star Gary Stills said. "He's a real good guy, a lot of energy for the locker room."

Sean Landeta, who punted in the NFL for 21 seasons and before that for three years in the USFL, including for his hometown Baltimore Stars, has known Stover since they were teammates on the 1990 New York Giants, when Stover was relegated to injured reserve with a highly suspicious quadriceps pull after being drafted in the 12th round out of Louisiana Tech.

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