Ravens kicker Justin Tucker routinely booted clutch field goals with the poise of a veteran during his rookie season, displaying every quality that retired Ravens kicker Matt Stover looks for in a successful kicker.
Beyond having the leg strength to rocket the football through the uprights, Tucker was about more than just power. He was uncommonly accurate. Tucker connected on 30 of 33 field goals for a 90.9 percent success rate, the second-best mark for a rookie in NFL history.
What Tucker has also shown Stover in conversations is a willingness to listen to advice, the humility to realize he still has more to learn, and diligence in his preparations.
"Justin is a guy who's got it going on off the field because his character is very good," said Stover, the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. "That plays a huge part because as an NFL athlete, it really comes down to trust. They trust him so much they didn't bring in any competition. Either you have the ability or you don't and can you can replicate it time and time again? Justin has harnessed that.
"You can have the talent and the passion, but Justin has the mental strength. He proved that to me in the playoffs. As a kicker, you're after the respect of your teammates. It's a privilege to be in this position, and Justin understands that it's a privilege."
As Tucker and the Ravens started the NFL regular season Thursday night against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field, the kicker returned to the site of his greatest moment of a whirlwind season that began with him beating out former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff.
Last night, Tucker converted his first field goal of the season with a 25-yarder in the second quarter.
Tucker scored the highest total points in a season for a rookie (132) in Ravens history. He hit a 47-yard game-winning field goal in January during the second quarter of overtime of an AFC divisional-round victory that propelled the team to the AFC championship.
"That was a great moment," Tucker said this week. "You never want to be the guy that lets his teammates down, and you do that by approaching every kick with the same concentration and technique.
"It's not always going to be perfect conditions, but you trust your fundamentals, listen to your coaches and teammates and get the job done. It's an honor to be in that position."
Tucker hit four kicks from 50 yards or more last season to set a franchise single-season record, converting from 56, 54, 51 and 51 yards. His kick as time expired beat the New England Patriots in the regular season, and his 38-yarder in overtime sent the San Diego Chargers to a loss.
Tucker has already mapped out his goals for this season: Make the Pro Bowl and every kick.
"I always try to set big goals," said Tucker, whose 69.5 yard average per kickoff ranked first in the NFL last season. "I want to make every kick. I got close last year, so you want to aim for higher goals every year."
Tucker credits the guidance of special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg; kicking coach Randy Brown; head coach John Harbaugh, a former Philadelphia Eagles special teams coach; long snapper Morgan Cox; and punter Sam Koch.
"I get a lot of help from a lot of cool guys," Tucker said.
Just five kickers outranked Tucker in field-goal percentage last season: the Washington Redskins' Kai Forbath (94.4 percent), the Dallas Cowboys' Dan Bailey, the then-Cleveland Browns' and now San Francisco 49ers' Phil Dawson (93.5 percent), the Minnesota Vikings' Blair Walsh (92.1 percent) and the Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski (91.2 percent).
"Justin takes his preparation very seriously," Koch said. "It's a whole operation: Morgan with the snap, me with the hold, and his kicks. He's a very talented guy who puts in the time to be good."
Tucker is also quite affordable, a bargain under a three-year, $1.445 million contract with no signing bonus and minimum base salaries of $480,000 and $570,000 this year and next season.
"Justin had such a great year he made a lot of coaches and people around the league think it's not such a bad idea to go with a young kicker," said former Ravens and Minnesota Vikings special-teams coach Gary
Zauner, who's now a private kicking coach. "A lot of teams will go with a rookie quarterback, but for some reasons there was kind of a stigma and esitancy attached to rookie kickers.
"Too many times kickers get a contract, do their job and then they get rid of them when they don't do their job. So, teams keep recycling these guys and the really good young kickers don't get a chance. I think Justin has helped more younger kickers get an opportunity in the future."
Tucker has gotten noticeably bigger in the upper body and maintained an extensive stretching regimen. Although he hasn't gained weight, Tucker said he's gotten stronger.
It's that kind of work ethic that makes Stover confident that Tucker, who's emerging as a fan favorite, will have a long tenure in Baltimore.
"Justin has capitalized on the opportunity and I think he's one of those guys who will be here a long time," Stover said. "You can have all the talent in the world and then become that flash in the pan. It's kids like Justin who learn and stay studious that are tremendous assets for an NFL team.
"I'm happy for the team, happy for Justin and for the city, too. We are evaluated so easily, and you never want to let your city down. You can trust Justin to do what it takes."