Twenty years into a kicking career that launched before the NFL's salary cap era, Matt Stover becomes a free agent on Friday. Absent a contract offer to play in a family-friendly environment, he says he will retire from the game.
"I'm willing to let this thing go at the drop of a hat if that's what is best for my family," the former Ravens kicker said.
"My heart isn't in it to play just to play. It's to make a difference for a team and create security in a position that maybe somebody else couldn't give them."
Make no mistake, though: Stover, who at 42 became the oldest player to participate in a Super Bowl last month when he kicked for the Indianapolis Colts, believes he can still make big field goals and help a contending team.
Toward that end, he will keep his options open. And yes, one of those options is the Ravens, with whom he spent 13 seasons.
"I will let it play itself out," Stover said. "I'm not a first-day call. If I don't get picked up by April or May, I'll have to ask myself, 'Do I really want to go through this again?' No. But if I can help a team get to the Super Bowl, if it was a legit team, I would. The Ravens are one of those teams."
Still, Stover's return to the Ravens appears unlikely, if only because the team has signing rights to kicker Billy Cundiff, a restricted free agent who finished the season after Steve Hauschka was cut in November.
Then there was Stover's departure from the team last summer. While the divorce was amicable, there were mixed messages and little dialogue. Once Stover's contract expired after the 2008 season, he had just one brief conversation with general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Stover still had hope of rejoining the team. In March, he received a guaranteed offer of $1.2 million to kick for the New York Jets. When he took that offer to the Ravens, he was told -- in so many words -- to sign with the Jets. He declined because it meant forcing out a close friend, Jay Feely. The Ravens were already moving on.
"They never made him an offer," said Jim Steiner, Stover's agent.
It became clear last summer the Ravens wanted to save the roster spot that previously went to a kickoff specialist and use it on a position player. Stover handled kickoffs only sporadically late in his career, while Hauschka and Cundiff do both.
Could Steiner envision Stover returning to the Ravens in 2010?
"I don't really see it happening," he said.
Interestingly, coach John Harbaugh said he could. At a postseason news conference in January, Harbaugh said he was open to bringing back Stover if it improved the team.
"We want to have the best kicker in here that we can and we're certainly not opposed to having two guys kick," Harbaugh said. "If it's a kickoff guy and a field goal guy -- whatever's best for our situation, that's what we're going to do. We've said from the beginning that we would rather have a guy that kicks off and does field goals because our punter is not a kickoff guy
"But we've proven we'll have three guys in there and be very happy with it, and that's a possibility going forward. So, if you're asking me about Matt coming back -- sure, Matt's a possibility coming back. That could work out that way. Billy Cundiff, I think, is a big possibility for us. He proved that he could make field goals under pressure situations. [And] he kicked off very well."
Cundiff made 18 of 23 field goals for the Ravens, missing twice from longer than 50 yards and three times from inside 40 yards.
Playing in a dome for home games, Stover hit nine of 11 kicks with the Colts, missing from 32 and 52 yards. He made his first six postseason kicks, before missing a 51-yard attempt in the Super Bowl. He had the distance on what could be the final kick of his career, but pushed it wide left by perhaps two feet.
Despite impeccable credentials -- Stover ranks fourth all-time in kicking points (2,004) and field goals made (471) -- Steiner is not optimistic Stover will get a chance to be a team's regular kicker before teams go to training camp.
"It'll probably be similar to last year, I would think, only due to his age," Steiner said. "You'd like to think at that position that someone might be interested even at age 42, but the more likely scenario is he becomes a replacement, ala 2009."
That's exactly what Stover would like to avoid. He signed with the Colts on Oct. 14 when Adam Vinatieri required arthroscopic knee surgery. His wife and three children stayed behind in Baltimore. To minimize the hardship, he rented a condominium in Indianapolis for family visits, and made an arrangement with coach Jim Caldwell to be in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday each week.
"I'm not doing that again," Stover said. "I won't drag my family through another season just to play another year. It's about what's best for my family. I believe physically I can still do it. But it has to be the right fit and I want to be able to help a team get to the Super Bowl. I feel I still add value to a team."
The Ravens, he said, "don't owe me anything."
Except maybe a retirement ceremony.
"I'd love to retire as a Raven," he said.