How Do You Replace Stover? Season May Hang In Balance

August 06, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd

Part of the fun of having a media credential and going to Ravens camp is you get to ask the coaches annoying questions.

Here's one that really gets on their nerves: Who's going to replace the great Matt Stover as the team's kicker, Steve Hauschka or Graham Gano?

It gets on their nerves because John Harbaugh and his staff have been asked this for weeks, dating to the team's first minicamps.

And the answer the coaches keep giving is: We won't know until the preseason games start.

Look, they say, you can watch a guy kick all you want in practice on the nice green grass at McDaniel College.

But until you see how he reacts under game pressure, in a packed stadium when he has to hit a 40-yarder with the game on the line and a lump in his throat the size of a boulder, you don't know what you've got.

"You gotta have a guy who can make field goals when you need 'em," Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "It's not necessarily the 60-yard field goal at the end of the game. That's not nearly as important to me as the guy making the 45-yarder when you need it."

That's why the competition between Hauschka and Gano is the most important one at this camp.

For one thing, having a premier field-goal kicker has never been more crucial to a team's success. More than a quarter of NFL games are decided by three points or fewer. Which means the field-goal kicker is often a huge factor in whether a team wins.

The other thing is this: The Ravens were spoiled by Matt Stover's greatness the past 13 years.

He was the only kicker in Ravens history before they released him early this year. He scored 1,944 points for them. He was one of the most accurate kickers in league history, making 83.7 percent of his field-goal tries.

And he nailed 14 game-winning field goals, including the 43-yarder against the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs last season that put the Ravens into the AFC championship game.

How do you replace a kicker like that?

Well, um, maybe you don't.

Maybe, as the Ravens have hinted, you have Matt Stover on speed-dial in case the new guys don't work out.

But trying out for the job now are Hauschka and Gano, which sounds like a law firm, maybe personal-injury specialists.

Hauschka, 24, was the Ravens' long-field-goal specialist (made a 54-yarder, missed a 53-yarder) as well as their kickoff guy last season.

He kicked for three years at Middlebury College, a Division III school in Vermont, where you're not exactly overcome by the game-day pressure, and a year at North Carolina State as a graduate student. But he has a monster leg and learned at the foot of the master, Stover, last season.

Gano, 22, is an undrafted rookie who kicked in the pressure-cooker environment of Florida State football, where they'll sell raffle tickets to your funeral if you miss a field goal in a critical situation. (He didn't miss too many, winning the Lou Groza Award as the best college kicker last season.)

Both seem like tough kids. In the offseason minicamps, the Ravens held drills in which the whole team would surround each kicker and try to rattle him as he attempted a long field goal.

They would squirt water on the kicker, throw hats at him and say absolutely horrible things about his mama.

Hauschka and Gano kept their cool and did well in the drills. In fact, both said the drills were kind of fun. Which tells you all you need to know about an NFL minicamp.

In closing, let me say there's one thing that might hold Graham Gano back in his bid to be the Ravens' kicker, and that's his unfortunate nickname - something he has had since childhood.

Which is - I hope you're sitting down - "Graham Cracker."

Yeah, not exactly an inspiring nickname for a football player.

"Mean" Joe Greene - now there's a football nickname.

William "Refrigerator" Perry, Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, Andre "Bad Moon" Rison - those are football nicknames.

But not Graham Cracker. Having a nickname like Graham Cracker is a step away from having a nickname like, I don't know, Gummi Bears.

It just won't do.

"That's the first I've heard of it," said Rosburg, when I mentioned the whole Graham Cracker business. "I haven't heard anybody call him that. He's not spreading it around."

Can you blame him?

Actually, the good-natured Gano says he has "tons" of nicknames, including G-Squared and Double-G. Which sound positively ferocious compared with Graham Cracker.

I didn't ask if Hauschka had a nickname.

Sometimes you're better off not knowing.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM.

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