Baltimore Ravens All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker talks about how comfortable he is kicking at home. He made a 64-yard field goal during practice. (Kevin Richardson/Baltmiore Sun video)
Justin Tucker warmed up from all corners of the field in preparation for one of the most anticipated features of Monday's open training camp practice at M&T Bank Stadium.
The first in his four-field-goal sequence was a paltry 33-yarder, but as he stepped farther back, the crowd's cheers grew louder. From 44 yards, good. From 51 yards, another good, and a bigger ovation.
And when he bombed a 64-yard field goal that would have tied the NFL record if converted in a game, the crowd of 22,111 showered him with the loudest cheers of the otherwise subdued night.
His deep, range-testing kicks in the team's open practices are some of the most captivating moments of the showcase, rare but deserved attention for a specialist who means more to the fans — and potentially to his team — than the average kicker.
"The fact that we can hit them from long range might be a lot of fun for the fans out there, for open practices, here during training camp, but when the game is on the line, it's serious business," Tucker said. "But it's fun when you make them, too."
It helps that attempting long field goals, while pleasing to fans, also meets one of the Pro Bowl kicker's developmental needs.
In his three-year career, Tucker has missed just five of 88 field-goal attempts from inside 50 yards, an impressive 94.3 percent success rate. In 2014, he didn't have a single miss from inside 50 yards, connecting on all 25 attempts from that range.
But Tucker was 4 of 9 from 50 yards and beyond last year, dropping him to 14 of 20 for his career.
For that reason, associate head coach-special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said Tucker has attempted plenty of long kicks this summer — too many for his liking.
Tucker said he hit from 70 yards in organized team activities, and had a long of 67 yards in mandatory minicamp. He also noted a well-hit miss from 54 yards that he followed with a successful 61-yard field goal. Rosburg said the distance doesn't matter as much as the swing that produces it.
"If there's any kind of emphasis, really what we're trying to do is to keep the same swing [and] make those kicks without having to change our technique," Rosburg said.
Those blasts in minicamp and OTAs were essentially behind closed doors. During training camp, with upward of 1,000 fans at the Under Armour Performance Center, Tucker's kicks have a slightly bigger audience.
Monday's open practice provided as close to a game-like environment as is possible.
"It's wonderful," Rosburg said. "I love having people around, because whether we like it or not, we're all human, and when you see people on the sideline you react to that. So, [coach] John [Harbaugh] does a wonderful job of creating kicking situations during the practice where we have to suddenly run out there and go make a kick, and that's a valuable way for kickers to practice."
Tucker insists the practice kicks that stretch his range are more than fan spectacle. Training camp, he said, sets a baseline for the coaching staff to make decisions in-season. Even if the coaching staff sends him out for a 70-yard kick, "it's not one of those, 'It's the offseason, let's try it out'" scenarios, Tucker said.
"If I go out there from 70 and I'm hitting one from 70, I'm expecting to make it," he said. "I'm expecting to make it. They're expecting me to make it. … If I miss one from 50-55, or from 65-70, I'm going to be just as [upset] about it. We are trying to make every single kick that they send us out there for. If they send us out there, they've got a reason."
The reaction his kicks get — and he gets in general — is something Tucker doesn't take for granted. It was four summers ago when he came into camp an undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas and supplanted veteran Billy Cundiff as the Ravens' place kicker. Since then, he has become the most accurate kicker in NFL history at 89.82 percent; he pulled just ahead of Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey (89.76 percent) to end 2014.
He's also become a fixture in the community, participating in events regularly in Baltimore City and drawing crowds with his summertime public kicking sessions on the turf football field in Patterson Park.
Petrina Youngbar, 35, of Middle River, met Tucker at the Kennedy Krieger Festival of Trees in Timonium with her two children, Timmy, 8, and Mikayla, 5. Timmy wore a Tucker jersey to the open practice, and said he's his "favorite player."
"He's also a good guy," Youngbar said. "We hope he stays as long as he possibly can. We were lucky to get another good kicker" after Ravens Ring of Honor member Matt Stover.
Whether all of this continues past this season depends on whether the Ravens can meet the terms required to keep him Tucker in Baltimore long-term.
Tucker tweeted images of bags with dollar signs on them when referencing the four-year, $17.5 million contract that made New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski the highest paid kicker in football last month. His friend and contemporary, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, recently signed a four-year, $14 million contract extension.
Tucker made just a shade under $1.5 million over the three years of his entry-level contract, and will play on a $2.3 million, one-year contract this year after the Ravens used a second-round tender on him in his restricted free agent season.
A long-term contract for Tucker could stabilize the Ravens' special teams unit for years to come, and lock up a kicker entering his prime as one of the game's best. Tucker borrowed a phrase from fellow pending free agent Marshal Yanda — "it'll get done when it gets done.
"I'm going to approach it like I approach every single other season — I'm going to go out there and try to make every single one of my kicks," Tucker said. "I'm optimistic that something could get done sooner rather than later, but at the same time, I've just got to play my game and work on hitting the best ball possible. … It's better to focus on taking care of business on the field and letting the stuff off the field figure itself out."