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
Five minutes after Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff pulled that relatively short, potential game-tying field goal wide left, I texted him: "I'm so sorry, Billy. Hang in there." When it comes to missed field goals, kicker solidarity trumps journalistic propriety every time.
Not to exonerate Cundiff, but the play itself looked threatened, if not doomed, from the outset. With the play clock at 10 seconds and ticking, I was stunned, like others, to see Cundiff racing onto the field. I haven't talked to him or seen an explanation for the delay. It's possible that Cundiff normally trots out a bit later than the rest of the field-goal unit. But this looked extreme. Cundiff was running pretty hard to get into position, and the ball was snapped as the play clock expired. You rarely see that on field goals. Then, unsurprisingly and definitely unconsciously, Cundiff rushed. When a kicker rushes, he rotates his hips too quickly, and when he rotates his hips too quickly his leg pushes the ball in the direction of the rotation. In this case, to the left. New England wins, 23-20.
"Sometimes you focus on the end result and your head comes up and your chest goes across the ball and you wind up pulling it," said Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely when I talked to him after the game. (Feely has plans to work out with Cundiff in the offseason.) "In a pressure situation, that sometimes happens."
Cue the idiots. "Cundiff will be safer in Iran," someone commented on Pro Football Talk. "This is why kickers are hated. That boy Cundiff would NOT fly home with my team," Stephen A. Smith bloviated, simultaneously demonstrating an ignorance of how kickers are viewed by their teammates and the concept of a team sport. (Replied Feely: "Kind of like loud mouthed media personalities who never played the game." Boom!) Even sportswriters who should know better got into the act. "Somewhere, Gary Anderson is laughing his ass off," Pro Football Talk tweeted. (No he's not, at all.) "Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson no longer failed kicker of the year," added Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden. (He never was.)
Cundiff is a smart, quiet, polite guy who, like many NFL kickers, has endured his share of misses and cuts. He entered the NFL in 2002 and was out of the league entirely in 2007 and 2008. Cundiff revived his career in Baltimore, replacing the guy who replaced the NFL's fifth all-time scorer, Matt Stover. In 2010, he was nothing short of fantastic, making 26 of 29 field goals, breaking the NFL record for touchbacks (on kickoffs from the 30-yard line), making the Pro Bowl, and signing a big (for a kicker) contract. His overall percentage declined this season, but he missed just two of 21 attempts from inside of 40 yards. The only risk factor: As this prescient pre-game ESPN blog post noted, Cundiff was a perfect 19-19 on field-goal attempts at home but just 11-20 on the road.
After the game, Cundiff met the media and said the right things. "There's really no excuse for it. It just didn't go through." He said he felt he had earned his teammates' trust over the last three seasons and was disappointed to have let them down, especially linebacker Ray Lewis, who may not get that close to a Super Bowl again. The NFL.com clip of Cundiff's interview is truncated, so I don't know whether Cundiff was asked why, when it looked like the kick would be rushed, he didn't call a timeout. ("The one thing you don't want to do is rush yourself," Feely said.) When Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked why he didn't signal for a timeout, he answered, "That's something we'll have to look at." (Don't believe the argument that the Ravens didn't want to ice their own kicker, because there's no such thing as icing the kicker.)
In any event, in Baltimore, the blog commenters and radio blabbermouths will bemoan the very existence of the kicker. In New York, meanwhile, they will celebrate one.
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.