All these years later, after 351 field goals and 410 extra points over 11 regular seasons in Baltimore, after another 14 field goals and 27 extra points over five postseasons, Justin Tucker still remembers his first.
“Yeah, that was a 46-yarder,” the Ravens kicker recalled Thursday, reciting the facts of his first kick as if the team’s 2012 season opener had happened only days ago. The spot between the hash marks? “Left middle.” The game itself? “‘Monday Night Football.’ First drive of the game against the Bengals.”
The most accurate kicker in NFL history hasn’t missed many since. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tucker is two points away from breaking kicker Matt Stover’s franchise scoring record (1,464 points). He might not remember all of his kicks as a Raven, but some of the biggest ones are hard to forget. Just days away from a potentially historic afternoon inside Acrisure Stadium, Tucker broke them down with The Baltimore Sun.
2012, Week 1: 46-yard FG vs. Bengals
The first kick of Tucker’s NFL career wasn’t easy. But then, winning the starting job hadn’t been easy, either. Tucker, an undrafted rookie from Texas, had beaten out Billy Cundiff, a Pro Bowl selection two years earlier. On the opening drive of the Ravens’ season opener in Baltimore, he was called on for what he considered to be a prove-it kick.
“I think more than anything, that particular kick was almost like the culmination of the spring with [organized team activities] and minicamp and training camp” he said. “All of that work and competition was, in a way, setting me up for that moment, right there, that hurdle that I had to get over in order to actually get a career started. It wasn’t just making the team — or even before that, just signing on with any team. I felt in that moment that I had to make that kick to give myself a chance to start any sort of a career, whatever that may look like, from there on out.”
Tucker hit two more field goals and all five of his extra-point attempts in a 44-13 blowout win.
2012, Week 3: 27-yard FG vs. Patriots
Tucker’s first career game-winning field goal was booted high enough and close enough to the right upright inside M&T Bank Stadium that some of New England’s players and coaches protested to the officials that the kick had, in fact, missed.
“Hey, if one of the worst kicks of my career was a game-winner on ‘Sunday Night Football,’” Tucker joked Thursday, “then I have to be able to live with that.”
But lost amid the celebration of the 31-30 win that night was something NBC’s telecast didn’t capture: Part of the sole of Tucker’s right (kicking) cleat had separated from the rest of the shoe as he drove toward the ball.
“It was just unlucky, bad timing. But yeah, as I go to drive, just the slight torque that I put into the ground on my drive step caused, somehow, the sole ... — ” he stopped to point to the bottom of cleats he was holding — “this just became separated from the rest of the shoe. ... So whether or not that had any bearing on the foot-to-ball contact or the result of the kick, who knows? But I definitely noticed it as I was approaching the ball, and I’m just doing everything I can to just finish the kick.”
2012, Week 11: 39-yard FG vs. Steelers
Tucker still thinks just as much, if not more, about the field goal he missed during his first trip to Pittsburgh — a 41-yarder — as he does about the two he did make — 26- and 39-yarders.
“It was my first time playing there,” he said. “I had continued to hear, over and over and over again, how difficult a place it was to kick, and then I go out there and I just happened to push my first one just wide right.
“And then we come back later in the game ... same area of the field. And I remember telling myself, ‘If I’m worth anything as a professional athlete, I’ve got to make this kick, and I’ve got to make it right down the middle.’ And we did exactly that. [Long snapper] Morgan Cox threw back a great snap. [Holder] Sam [Koch] put down the ball nice and quick, laces out. And boom — ball goes right down the middle.
“And to me, that was a really cathartic moment, just within my own mind. I built it up that I had to make this kick, and I kind of showed myself: I have the mental fortitude to do whatever I tell myself I’m going to. Like, ‘Right now, I’m setting my mind to this, I’m going to do it, and we did it.’”
The Ravens won, 13-10. Tucker hasn’t missed a kick in Pittsburgh since.
2012, AFC divisional round: extra point vs. Broncos
For Tucker, the most memorable kick in the 38-35 double-overtime win over top-seeded Denver wasn’t his game-winning 47-yarder. It was the routine kick that came after quarterback Joe Flacco found wide receiver Jacoby Jones for their “Mile High Miracle.”
“With 31 seconds left, the score is, at that point, what, 35-34?” Tucker said, again summoning his own mental box score. “If we don’t just knock through the PAT [point after touchdown] — which, at the time, was a 20-yard kick — if we don’t knock that through, the season’s over. My career’s probably over. And we all certainly didn’t want it to go that way.
“I know Morgan and I’ve shared the same sentiment, and we’ve talked about this for years. But the game-winner in double overtime, that was one of my favorite kicks. But the PAT at the end of regulation — for that one, I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous than before that PAT at the end of regulation.”
2012, Super Bowl XLVII: 38-yard FG vs. 49ers
Nowadays, Tucker can appreciate the artistry of the Ravens’ final score in their championship season. He has a photograph of the aerial view of the field goal, signed by Cox and Koch, with the on-field logo of Super Bowl XLVII framing their operation just so.
But the waiting after his kick gave the Ravens a 34-29 lead with just over four minutes remaining inside New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome — that was hell.
“The feeling after that kick was, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to blast this kick off and then fully expect this game is going to come right back down to me’ — which, at that moment in time, or any moment in time, that’s just incredibly daunting,” he said. “So [San Francisco quarterback] Colin Kaepernick and company get down to the 5-yard line, and they’re looking at first-and-goal with, whatever, like, a minute or two left. And I just remember pacing the sideline, not looking at anybody, just expecting that the Super Bowl’s coming down to me.
“And then, sure enough, it didn’t” — the Ravens would hold on to win, 34-31 — “but I just remember that feeling of having just a giant knot just stuck in the pit of my stomach, and it was a brutal feeling.”
2013, Week 15: 61-yard FG vs. Lions
What’s better than making a game-winning and franchise-record-setting field goal? Hearing how then-ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico called the kick in the 18-16 road victory.
“Just so sick,” Tucker said. “It’s one of my favorite memories now, looking back. Anytime I see him or I talk to him, I always tell him, ‘When you called that game on Monday night in Detroit in 2013, your energy, the call, it was all just electric. And I thank you for that.’
“Because what was already a really cool moment for all of us was made even more special for the people who were directly involved in the actual play and winning the football game. And then anybody watching the game, that’s why football’s so big, is because of moments like that, called by the great broadcasters like Mike Tirico.”
2016, Week 1: 50-yard FG vs. Bills
In 2015, Tucker made only 82.5% of his field goals, still a career low. Six of his seven misses had come on attempts of at least 50 yards. Desperate to improve, Tucker studied the technique of then-Patriot Stephen Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the NFL’s best long-range kickers.
“The stuff Stephen was doing was clearly working really, really well for him,” Tucker said. “He was kicking just the [expletive] out of the ball. It was awesome to watch. And I remember kicking the ball pretty well, too, but there was just something that I was chasing that I just had to make it a point to — I kind of had to humble myself and say to myself, ‘You’re not doing everything exactly how you should be, as it pertains to kicking the ball. Somebody else out there might be doing it a little bit better than you.’ And I’ve told Stephen this, and I’ve said this before, but that really pissed me off.”
Before the 2016 season, Tucker tweaked his technique. He didn’t need long to put it to the test. Tucker went 10-for-10 on field goals of 50-plus yards that season, starting with the opening score in a 13-7 home win over Buffalo.
“Being able to go out there and see kind of a shift result in something tangible,” he said, “that was really meaningful for me.”
2019, Week 13: 49-yard FG vs. 49ers
Tucker’s game-winner ended a tense game for the streaking Ravens and a tense week for their tight-knit “Wolfpack.”
Tucker, Cox and Koch — but mainly Cox and Koch, Tucker said — had been “at each other’s throats the whole week. They were just pissed — really, for no reason.” It was, he recalled, a miserable week. Not even burgers could cheer them up. Out a sense of weekly obligation, they headed to Red Robin after practice on the Friday before the game. They ate in silence.
“We sat down for, like, 40 minutes and had our burgers and fries,” Tucker said, almost delighted by the memory. “Still, no one talked to each other. It was great.”
The game day weather in Baltimore matched their moods: near-freezing temperatures, gusts of wind, steady rainfall. By the time Tucker trotted out onto the field with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the field was “chewed up.” He knew his footwork had to be precise, stable.
“I just remember, for that kick, as I’m jogging out there, I’m lining up, I’m thinking of, ‘How am I going to get this kick to go through?’” he said. “And as I’m thinking about that, I’m like, ‘Man, this is a low-percentage kick, even for me. But you know what? We’re going to trust our technique. We’re going to trust Morgan to do his job, guys to just block for just long enough, Sam to put the ball down.’ And after ... just a complete grinder, to be able to kind of give everybody that had been leaving their literal blood, sweat and tears all over that miserable field that day, to be able to give them that win in that moment, was just incredibly special.”
The 20-17 win over the eventual NFC champions was the Ravens’ eighth straight victory in a run that would grow to 12. Among the Wolfpack, Tucker’s kick proved an icebreaker. Throughout the game, they’d rarely spoken with one another. “Then we go out there and make the winning field goal,” Tucker recalled. “And then we get in the locker room and we all just look at each other, just like, ‘That was cool.’”
2021, Week 13: 66-yard FG vs. Lions
Tucker’s been asked about his NFL-record kick over and over in the year since it made history. What else needs to be said? On Thursday, as he rewatched the ball clang against and then clear the crossbar, giving the Ravens a last-second victory and sending their sideline into hysterics, he was transported back to Ford Field once more, to the highs and lows of his job, to the things he tells himself to make the next kick, wherever it’s from.
“More than anything, seeing the celebration is just, like, the raddest thing ever,” he said. “Harbs [coach John Harbaugh] is just, like, ‘What just happened?’ That kick — it’s obviously one of the more memorable ones that we’ve had, and for good reason.
“But at that particular moment, more than anything, I was just thankful that I would have an opportunity to kind of, more or less, redeem myself. Because I left three points out there on the first kick of the game [a 49-yard field goal attempt] that I missed.
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“And then we’re trailing 17-16 — I was just hoping we could get a little bit closer. But, hey, in a way, 66 yards, it’s almost more makeable because of the degree of difficulty. If it’s, like, a 36-yarder, well, then you can start tripping yourself up. So it all worked out in some serendipitous way exactly how it was supposed to in that moment of time. And for that, all I can say is, I’m just grateful.”
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Steelers by 2 1/2