Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.
January 12, 2013
Trusting Justin Tucker was among the smartest decisions of John Harbaugh's tenure.
It now seems like so long ago -- one moment in the span of time during which Justin Tucker went from unknown to automatic -- that there was debate about whether Ravens coach John Harbaugh was doing the right thing by assigning place-kicking duties to -- gulp -- a rookie kicker, as if Tucker was about to become the first rookie kicker in the history of professional football. Kickers were a sensitive subject in Baltimore back then, and rightfully so, as last season ended when Billy Cundiff missed a chip shot field goal in the AFC championship game. Many folks wanted to Cundiff to get cut, and it didn't matter who the alternative was. Heck, there were still some calling for Matt Stover, who is 44 and hasn't kicked a field goal in the NFL in three years. But even then, some still believed a young kicker wouldn't be able to kick it in a critical moment, like the one we watched in Denver on Saturday. I blame Steve Hauschka.
Flash forward to Saturday night, when Tucker lined up on the trampled turf at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High, crossed his heart as he took aim, and boomed the football high into the freezing night. End over end, it tumbled through the thin air toward the uprights, then between them. But really, was there any doubt? The kid has been automatic these past six months. Money, if you will, and that is something he might have earned a little more of Saturday. Tucker had missed just three of 33 field-goal attempts during the regular season, and it had gotten to the point where you could head to the bathroom before he attempted a field goal -- which I suppose is the ultimate compliment one could ever give to a kicker.
But in double overtime against the Denver Broncos, with a trip back to the AFC championship game on the line, the only fans who weren't watching Tucker's kick were the ones who had their hands over their eyes, fearing that history would repeat itself and the finicky football gods would deliver another cruel Cundiffian moment. Not this time. The kick was firm. The kick was straight. And the kick was good, from 47 yards, no less. And the way that the 23-year-old undrafted rookie, the one who sang opera in his spare time at Texas and who playfully talks PG-rated trash to guys like Ed Reed in locker room cornhole games, coolly rose to the moment in a 38-35 win is a reminder that the decision to go with Tucker over Cundiff in the first place had little to do with Cundiff and his painful past and everything to do with Tucker and his promising potential. The way Tucker carried himself this summer, when he confidently kicked Cundiff's butt in a training camp competition (and couldn't have been more gracious about it), it was obvious that there was something special about this kid. Props to John Harbaugh for recognizing it. The decision wasn't as courageous as some first made it out to be, but it was the right one nonetheless.