Upon learning he had beaten out veteran Billy Cundiff to become the Ravens kicker, Justin Tucker couldn’t resist taking time to enjoy it.
Even if only for a moment before refocusing his efforts toward keeping the job the 22-year-old worked so hard to earn over the last three months.
“Probably for about a minute I got a chance to celebrate and call everyone in my family and a few of my good friends from school and let them know some good news,” Tucker said. “Right after that, you have to put your head down and get right back to work.”
It’s that attitude — along with a powerful, deadly-accurate right leg — that impressed coach John Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg enough to make the difficult decision to part with Cundiff and instill their faith in a young man who’s never made as much as an extra point in an NFL game.
After spending the last six weeks as the hunter, Tucker’s standing with the Ravens now resets. Making 60-yard field goals during practices in Owings Mills or a 53-yarder against the Jacksonville Jaguars in August will win you the starting job, but those feats do nothing to insure the rookie will keep the starting job long-term.
Fortunes can turn quickly. Just ask the 2010 Pro Bowl kicker who finds himself unemployed less than two years later.
Tucker is seeing it firsthand as friends and teammates struggle to carve out spots on the 53-man roster, with some of them already having been told they weren’t good enough.
“I was just telling a couple of the other guys that it gets real, really fast,” Tucker said. “There are 90 guys here over the weekend, and after today, there [are] 75. So, it is pretty crazy how fast it all happens.”
As confident as Harbaugh and the Ravens are in Tucker’s ability, the reality is no one knows whether he will be able to handle the job. Admittedly in the best groove of his kicking career this summer, Tucker hasn’t dealt with the scrutiny that accompanies a rough stretch in which he misses a couple fields goals he’s expected to make.
But the coaching staff is betting that the maturity he exuded throughout the kicking competition will carry over if and when he pushes a 41-yarder wide right or has a 54-yard game-winning attempt blocked by a defensive lineman.
It happens to the best of them. The Ravens just hope it doesn’t come in the closing seconds of the AFC Championship game again.
“When you have a bad play or the momentum swings against you, you brush it off and you move on to the next one,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the same for kickers. I think he has what it takes to do that.”
Whether it’s unbreakable confidence or simply the naivety of a rookie, Tucker says he doesn’t think about failure. Depending on how you view it, the fact that he can’t recall any notable period at Texas in which he struggled might be a dangerous omen or the reflection of a young man who’s fortunate enough not to realize how difficult it can be to kick in the NFL.
As he’s done throughout the summer, Tucker intends to keep his focus on the next attempt, regardless of how high the stakes are raised in two weeks.
“[I] just think positively,” Tucker said. “And going back to what I’ve said about 100 times: ‘Just keep it simple, and take it one kick at a time.’ That’s all you can do.”
His collegiate career with the Longhorns figures to aid Tucker more than the typical rookie kicker’s college experience. Playing in front of 100,000 fans in Austin or making a 40-yard game-winner on the road against rival Texas A&M is as close as it gets to proper training for life as a kicker in the NFL.