We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Stefan Fatsis
To: Josh Levin, Seth Stevenson
When we last left our hero—OK, our protagonist—Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff was explaining his fatal, last-second field-goal attempt against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Cundiff admitted that he was late getting on to the field. The play clock ticked toward zero. Cundiff rushed the kick. He missed. He took responsibility.
What was unclear was why Cundiff was running late. Before we examine what happened—I spoke again to Cundiff and to a Ravens executive—it's helpful to understand how kickers prepare to kick field goals. As you might expect, it's not haphazard. These guys have precise routines, both physical and mental, for when the offense enters field-goal range.
Here's Cundiff's: On first down, Cundiff, his snapper, and his holder gather with Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown near the practice net on the opponent's half of the field. They execute four or five snaps and holds, and Cundiff, taking no steps, lightly kicks the ball to Brown eight yards away. On second down, Cundiff moves to the Ravens' end of the field, around the 40-yard line. The kicker faces the goalposts at which he'll be aiming and kicks "on air," with no ball, looking up at the distant markers. From far away, the goalposts look narrow; when Cundiff runs on the field, they look wider. "It's a little mind game," he says.
On third down, still around the Ravens' 40, Cundiff imagines the upcoming kick a single time. He moves closer to the sideline to prepare to enter the game and waits for the third-down play to finish. If it's unsuccessful, Cundiff waits to hear Brown and Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg shout, "Field goal! Field goal!" and then makes his entrance.
Because the sidelines of an NFL game are crowded—scores of players, coaches, staff, and game officials, a tangle of benches, equipment, and cables, all crammed between the two 30-yard lines—the best way to follow down and distance, and to watch the plays, is on the scoreboard, which is how Cundiff coordinates his pre-kick routine. On Sunday, during what would be the Ravens' final set of downs, Cundiff completed his first-down prep and checked the scoreboard: second down. He ran through his routine and looked up at the scoreboard again: third down.
Then, suddenly, chaos on the sidelines. Coaches were screaming—from the opposite end of the field to where Cundiff was thinking his third-down pre-kick kicker thoughts—for the field-goal unit. The play clock was ticking and Cundiff, as per normal, was back from the sideline and farther from the line of scrimmage than his teammates. As he was not expecting to go in yet, he had to run to get into position for a game-tying kick.
Cundiff told me he initially thought he was at fault, that he had looked at the scoreboard too early, before the down number had been changed. In fact, the Gillette Stadium scoreboard was off by a down. On Monday, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs told ESPN that Ravens players thought the team had made a first down after receiver Anquan Boldin fumbled out of bounds on first-and-10 from the Patriots' 23-yard line. Instead, the ball was marked where Boldin had lost it, a yard short of a first down. On second and third downs—which the scoreboard said were first and second—Ravens threw unsuccessfully into the end zone. Ravens P.R. director Kevin Byrne told me—and Cundiff later learned—that team officials watched the All-22 video of the game on Monday and confirmed the scoreboard malfunction.
The Ravens, of course, could have made all this confusion moot by calling a timeout. Instead, coach John Harbaugh decided to let Cundiff run on the field and kick.
But back to the scoreboard. Was the error on the Gillette Stadium board an honest mistake made by a confused Patriots employee? Or were there darker forces at work here—a little Belichickian Machiavellianism to confuse the opposition with a Super Bowl berth on the line? Cundiff blames no one but himself for the miss. But he's relieved to know he wasn't seeing things on the stadium scoreboard.
Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." His latest book is A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL.