Think hard before losing Stover

The Baltimore Sun

This isn't about nostalgia or sentiment because in the NFL it rarely is. If it were just about the good ol' days, Matt Stover would walk away on his own terms, rather than get nudged out.

Then again, it is a little bit about going out on one's own terms. The Ravens are contemplating the first change at kicker in the franchise's history in town, and when Stover, a free agent, last week expressed his doubts that they really wanted him back, Ozzie Newsome quickly stepped in with an emphatic "We'll see."

That's OK. As long as the Ravens know exactly what they're replacing. As long as that replacement - Steve Hauschka, so tantalizing last season, or some other veteran who shakes loose this offseason - can do what Stover has done, not just 13 years ago, not just in the Super Bowl season, but also right up to the end of last season.

Uncomfortable about the Ravens having to carry two kickers on the roster so much of last season and about them doing it again this season? Face it: They had two on the roster that night in Nashville, in the AFC playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. Hauschka and his big leg, and Stover and his experienced leg. It was a tasty little subplot: If it came down to it, to whom would the Ravens turn? How long would such a fateful kick have to be to force them into that decision?

Answer: They got themselves close enough to make it a no-brainer, and Stover drilled the tie-breaking, game-winning, trip-to-Pittsburgh-clinching 43-yarder with 53 seconds left.

If Stover, at 41, is still good on the road in the cold from 43 in a playoff game, how badly does he really need to be replaced?

Or, to put it another way: Is Hauschka ready to make that kick? Maybe not for the next 18 years, the length of Stover's career, but at least for the next couple of years, when the window to the Super Bowl is wide open? Is Hauschka or John Carney or Matt Bryant or Mike Nugent or whoever?

That's the standard Stover set. You can't replace Ray Lewis with a guy who comes off the field on third down. You don't replace Jonathan Ogden with a guy who always needs help on passing plays. (Which Jared Gaither did not, by the way.)

The only way to find out about Hauschka, of course, is the way everyone found out about Gaither: put him out there and hope that whatever convinced you when the pressure wasn't on is still there when it turns on. When onlookers say, "Stover makes that."

The value of kickoffs can't be discounted, and Hauschka is better. He might truly be the kicking find of the decade; the 54-yard field goal he unloaded in Houston, almost on a whim, was as pleasant and surprising a moment from last season as any.

In the clutch, though, is when he'll determine whether he's worthy. That's how Stover carved his place in franchise and NFL history. Stover is still good enough, has done enough lately, to have earned the opportunity to either kick his way back onto the roster or kick his way off.

That's how he can go on his own terms: by staying until he's through, and not a moment less.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

points after

* Out of Excuses, Part I: No tears shed here for Terrell Owens' briefly joining the swelling unemployment ranks, but apparently this means the Dallas Cowboys are sure Tony Romo, Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips are not the problem.

* Out of Excuses, Part II: The perjury trial is postponed indefinitely, so it's time for everybody to come up with fresh reasons not to sign Barry Bonds.

* Don't be surprised if the Ravens and Matt Birk end up being a perfect match yet still really miss Jason Brown.

* Just when it looks like all the asterisks are being used up on baseball, Bobby Bowden and Florida State come along begging for a few.

* One round further than expected in their conference tournaments - excellent job, Towson and UMBC.

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