BALTIMORE — A 48-17 win in what’s commonly referred to as the dress rehearsal for the regular season went as well as the Ravens could have reasonably hoped.
That is, for everyone other than incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff, who was left standing on the sideline hoping for another opportunity to hold onto the job he’s held for the last 2 1/2 seasons.
But after rookie kicker Justin Tucker handled all kicking duties and converted six extra points and field goals from 33 and 53 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars, even Cundiff might be starting to see the writing on the wall. The 32-year-old appears to be in grave danger of losing his job, and there’s nothing he could do about it Thursday as he watched Tucker perform flawlessly.
He wasn’t happy about it following the game.
“I found out before this game that I wasn’t going to get any reps, which shocked me,” Cundiff said. “I felt like I had a really good week of practice. So, it’ll just play itself out.”
How much longer it will take to make a decision remains to be seen as the Ravens made a bold move in allowing the rookie to play the entire game while Cundiff was relegated to pre-game work to stay sharp. It appears there’s no turning back after Tucker didn’t stub his toe while owning the full spotlight at M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night.
Coach John Harbaugh offered his explanation following the game, saying the Ravens needed an opportunity to better evaluate what the rookie could do over the course of an entire game. Tucker passed with flying colors.
“Billy has had a great, great camp. He’s done really well,” Harbaugh said. “I think we know Billy. Billy would have come in here and made every one of those kicks, and when we kicked it deep, he would have kicked every one into the back of the end zone. Billy has proven. ‘Tuck’ has not proven. This is something that he needed. We needed to see if he could handle a whole game from beginning to end and have that pressure on him, and obviously he handled it very well.”
The Ravens had to know the potential firestorm this would create with the incumbent kicker, who clearly wasn’t fond of the competition being taken out of his hands. And while the words of praise uttered by Harbaugh sounded good, it almost reminded you of a person offering the “it’s not you, it’s me” line to someone they’re about to dump.
How can the organization go in any other direction now but to choose the rookie as their guy and to part ways with the man who missed the 32-yard field goal in the AFC Championship last January?
Knowing that the question of how much we should read into Thursday’s decision was going to be asked following the game, Harbaugh’s answer hardly sounded reassuring that it was still Cundiff’s job to lose. He easily could have said Cundiff would receive opportunities in the final preseason game Thursday in St. Louis, but the Baltimore coach didn’t.
“We have to make some decisions here again next week,” Harbaugh said. “So, we’ll just have to see how that goes.”
Rumors swirled Thursday evening that the Ravens will not only part ways with the 2010 Pro Bowl kicker but could do it before the final cut-down day on Aug. 31, which would provide the professional courtesy of giving Cundiff more time to potentially find a new team. It makes sense as there’s no point in delaying the inevitable if they’re sold on the idea of Tucker being their kicker for the 2012 season.
In January 2011, the Ravens signed Cundiff to a five-year, $15 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus. Releasing Cundiff would save $2.2 million in cap room this season — with a $600,000 cap hit remaining — but that would leave $1.8 million in dead money for the 2013 salary cap.
Clearly feeling the sting of not being able to compete, you could almost sense in Cundiff’s tone and words that he might be resigned to the fact that he’ll be moving on sooner rather than later.
“Regardless of my track record, if you look at it in the last two years as a full-time kicker, inside of 50 yards, I’m about 90 percent,” Cundiff said. “If you look at the playoffs, I’m [11 of 12 in three seasons in Baltimore]. In the last two years, if you take all of my touchbacks combined, I have more touchbacks than anybody else in the league. I feel as if that’s not good enough, then I’ll take my services elsewhere.”
What had already been an awkward situation with Tucker forcing the issue so dramatically this summer after Harbaugh had proclaimed Cundiff to be the Ravens’ kicker early in the offseason grew even more uncomfortable Thursday night.
Yes, after a summer full of flirting, the Ravens might be on the verge of moving on with someone else.
“Let’s be honest, I feel I’ve been through enough,” Cundiff said. “There’s not a single thing that someone could throw at me that I’m not prepared for. I know my confidence has been high. I know when I came into training camp a lot of people asked me where my head was at and questioning whether I would be able to kick, or whatever the case may be. I feel I proved throughout training camp that I came in prepared. Regardless of what’s been thrown at me or the situation that I’m in, I feel I’m ready to kick.”
Cundiff’s right. He has performed well this summer.
But it’s looking more and more like he might have been auditioning for a job with another team.