In pressure cooker, Stover remains cool; Improved kicking gives Raven job-security lift


Matt Stover has been under the microscope before. Having spent 10 years in the NFL, Stover is no stranger to pressure, whether it comes with lining up to attempt a game-winning field goal or having to preserve his job with a potential replacement lurking in the wings.

For the past month, Stover has faced the prospect of losing his roster spot to Joe Nedney, whom the Ravens claimed off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. The Ravens were dissatisfied with Stover's distances on kickoffs, a Nedney specialty. They also wanted to take a long look at Nedney's place-kicking on the practice field to see if they could upgrade the position with a switch.

Carrying two kickers on the active roster is an unusual arrangement, and that setup figures to change soon. It appears that Stover has outlasted Nedney, who could be released this week. The Ravens are seriously considering activating rookie safety Anthony Poindexter from the physically unable to perform list to take Nedney's spot.

But if you think Stover is resting easy, think again.

"This league is about what-have-you-done-for-me-tomorrow, not lately," Stover said. "If it's not Joe, it's somebody else out there. If you don't perform, there are always two or three guys on the street who could come in every year. I've always dealt with the pressure of being replaced. I put pressure on myself all of the time.

"The organization feels Joe has to be here. For whatever reason, I don't know. That's for them to know about and me not to care about. I've got to control what I've got to control. I've got to kick the ball as well as I can."

Stover drew the skepticism of Ravens coach Brian Billick after his kickoffs lacked distance during the season's first month. Missing a 38-yard field goal against Atlanta on Oct. 3 didn't help Stover's case, either. This from a guy who entered the season having made 92.4 percent of his attempts from inside the 40. The Ravens' touchdown-starved offense heightens the importance of field goals.

Since Nedney joined the team -- and he has been inactive for every game since arriving and will not dress for tomorrow's game in Cleveland -- Stover has consistently put his kickoffs around the opponents' 5-yard line.

Stover has made 10 of 15 field-goal attempts in 1999. Three of his misses have come from beyond 50 yards, including one that was blocked and one that hit an upright.

"Matt's kickoffs have been better. They've been about as good as anyone else's in the league," Billick said. "I've put Matt into some tough field-goal positions that were probably too much to ask of him. There's a certain amount of stereotyping that goes on regarding kickers that's probably not fair to them. The job they do isn't easy."

Stover has stared down challengers in the past. He beat out Scott Bentley in training camp during the summer. Last year, the Ravens thought about replacing him with Cary Blanchard during the first half of the season, but Stover survived.

His best years (1994 and 1995) came when Stover said he had no training camp competition. In those seasons, Stover made 55 of 61 field-goal attempts.

Stover is one of only five players who moved here from Cleveland in 1996. He has been with the franchise since March 1991. Only San Diego's John Carney has been with the same team longer.

That could change when Stover's contract expires after the 1999 season.

"I want to be here. If [the Ravens] want me here in the future, I'll do whatever I can to work it out," said Stover, who senses that he has gained some job security in the past few weeks.

"I think I'm popping the ball well. Physically, I've got the leg," he said. "I'm trying to be humble and not cocky when I say this, but it's going to be hard to beat me [under the present conditions]. I have to have that confidence in myself. If you don't, you don't belong here."

NOTES: Rookie wide receiver Brandon Stokley had surgery to repair his dislocated right shoulder yesterday. Stokley is on injured reserve. Besides Nedney, the Ravens put offensive lineman Spencer Folau, running back Jay Graham and wide receiver Marcus Nash on the inactive list yesterday.

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