Cundiff stakes his claim to Ravens' kicking job

Battle with Shayne Graham will go to the wire

August 29, 2010|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

Billy Cundiff already has booked a flight home to Phoenix, Ariz., for Saturday, the day the Ravens make final cuts to reach their final 53-man roster. His return flight to Baltimore on Sunday is less certain.

"They'll let me know whether I'm coming back," the Ravens' incumbent kicker said after another strong effort to preserve his place on that roster Saturday night.

Like everyone else, Cundiff isn't sure what to make of his preseason battle with Shayne Graham. Preseason and training camp numbers give a slight edge to Cundiff, who might also have an edge in leg strength.

But Graham, 32, is a proven commodity, the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history (85.2 percent) after nine seasons, all with the Cincinnati Bengals.

And Cundiff, 30, has been a career vagabond. The Ravens are his ninth NFL team.

For that reason alone, Graham was perceived as the favorite going into training camp.

Now, however, it would surprise no one if Cundiff is awarded the job after Thursday's final dress rehearsal in St. Louis against the Rams.

Even after Cundiff hammered three kickoffs into the end zone and smacked a chip-shot field goal in a 24-10 win over the New York Giants, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg was noncommittal.

"We expected it to be close," Rosburg said. "And it's all that we expected. We have two very good NFL kickers. They've both performed very well all the way through training camp."

Cundiff is 3-for-3 in the preseason, hitting from 26, 42 and 25 yards. Graham is 2-for-3, good from 32 and 24 yards, and missing from 50.

Graham was lining up for a 41-yard try late in the first half Saturday when an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Derrick Mason -- from the bench -- forced the Ravens to punt rather than attempt a 56-yarder.

"You look forward to having every opportunity you can get, but all you can do is be ready," Graham said. "I felt like I hit the ball well in pre-game. And I felt like that [56-yarder] was a kick that I could potentially make. But you play it smart with that much time left in the half."

How close is this competition?

In training camp workouts at Westminster when reporters were permitted to watch, Cundiff hit 82 of 96 attempts, a success rate of 85.4 percent. Graham converted 83 of 103 attempts, or 80.5 percent.

If there is separation between the two, it would appear to be on kickoffs.

Cundiff was stellar in that regard against New York. His three kickoffs traveled 75, 70 and 72 yards.

The Giants returned the first two to their 11- and 12-yard lines, a major win in field position for the Ravens. The third kick was not run out of the end zone.

Graham, meanwhile, sent his kickoffs to the Giants' 2 and the 1, and those kicks were returned to the 24- and 21-yard lines.

Coverage aside, Cundiff has demonstrated a stronger leg much of the preseason.

"He's been very strong in his kickoffs," Rosburg said. "I think the fact that Billy had an offseason with an NFL club helped, and he's taken advantage of that."

Cundiff attributes his longer kickoffs to maturity, being in excellent physical condition and the warm air of summer.

"I do feel like I have a stronger leg than last year but, at the same time, you guys are watching me kick in August," he said. "It's a lot different kicking in December, when the air's real cold. Â

"Also, I'm 30 years old. I'm starting to figure it out. If you do this long enough and if you stick around, you should be getting better. I feel like  I'm continuing to grow and I'm continuing to get better."

Cundiff's NFL career opened in 2002 in Dallas, and he spent four seasons with the Cowboys. He hit 60 of 82 field goals but was cut after two costly misses in a game against the Carolina Panthers in 2005.

In the ensuing years, he lost out to a variety of kickers -- Matt Bryant, Dave Rayner and Matt Prater among them -- and bounced from Tampa Bay to Green Bay to New Orleans to Atlanta to Kansas City to Detroit to Cleveland in search of a job. He signed with the Ravens in November after the failed experiment with Steve Hauschka and kicked in a total of nine games, including the playoffs.

In a Job-like trial of perseverance, Cundiff went more than two full seasons without attempting a regular-season field goal in the NFL. But he doggedly refused to bow out.

"I had 15 [tryouts] in between the time that I actually played in regular-season games," he said. "So that was 15 times essentially that they told me, 'You're not good enough.'"

Now he might have his best chance to reclaim what he had in Dallas. And a big part of his determination is to reward his family. His wife, Nicole, a lawyer in Phoenix, is steadfast in her support. His two kids -- 21/2-year-old Chloe and 5-month-old Luke -- serve as his inspiration.

"Nicole is awesome," Cundiff said. "She understands. She is my rock who I lean on. We're invested in this together. She likes to say, 'Kick some [butt], kick some balls.'

"I'm not just fighting for myself anymore. I've got an athletic legacy in the sense I want my kids to be able to see me play."

The family has remained in Phoenix while Cundiff fights for his livelihood in Baltimore.

But each night, Cundiff gets on his computer for a video chat with his wife and children.

If he manages to beat out Graham this week, they will all join him on that return flight to Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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