Billy Cundiff=Ray Finkle
…And let’s hope for the sake of humanity that Cundiff doesn’t go off the rails, get a sex change, assume the name of a missing hiker and become a police lieutenant in Miami like Finkle did.
What does it say about me that my first thought after Cundiff missed that 32-yard field goal was a plot element in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”?
Probably better to think about that than what actually happened because there really is no excuse. Billy Cundiff is a professional kicker. Professional kickers are expected to make 32-yard field goals. Cundiff didn’t.
Sure, he alone isn't the reason the Ravens aren't playing in the Super Bowl. There were plenty of mistakes to go around. But Cundiff's awful miss, and Lee Evans' dropped touchdown pass, are gonna linger for a long, long time in Ravenstown. This is the kind of loss that has sunk franchises before.
The best definition of choking I’ve ever heard came from former Houston Oilers running back turned analyst Spencer Tillman, who would know all about choking since he was on the 1993 Oilers team that coughed up a 35-3 lead to the Buffalo Bills.
Tillman’s point was that choking is when you fail to execute the fundamentals in a pressure situation. When you fail to do simply the basics of football in a big spot, that’s choking.
Well, Cundiff choked. Plain and simple. He knew it too, and I’m sure its going to haunt him all off-season. Make no mistake Billy Cundiff will be kicking for his job when camp comes around. If he can’t make 32-yard field goals John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome will find someone who can.
We Ravens fans are spoiled when it comes to kickers. We had Matt Stover for 13 years and he didn’t get the nickname “Money Matt” for nothing. We watched Stover hit big kick after big kick for years, almost taking for granted just how clutch the man could be. I guarantee you Stover doesn’t miss from 32 yards in any situation.
Kickers in football are like closers in baseball. The job has a lot of inherent pressure, and the best are the ones that never get rattled and just keep executing the fundamentals. Mariano Rivera doesn’t go away from his bread-and-butter, the cut fastball.
The truly clutch kickers of the game, Stover or Adam Vinateiri for instance, never seem to miss in big situations. In Stover’s case, I think his ability to be so money all the time stemmed from the fact that he executed every kick in the same fashion. He’d line up his steps, point his arm to map out his trajectory and then go through the kick. Whether it was an extra point in preseason or a 51-yard field goal on the road in the playoffs, Stover did every kick the same way.
Cundiff’s miss was a hook job. He went a step too far and caught the ball near his arch instead of his instep. And yes, the snap was poor, and maybe Harbaugh should have taken a timeout to let Cundiff take his time, but that’s still no excuse. Lawrence Tynes had a bad snap on a wet field and he still executed the kick that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl from about the same distance as Cundiff missed from.
It remains to be seen how this affects Cundiff’s career. Like closers, kickers react differently to a big miss. Rivera blew saves in the 2001 World Series and the 2004 ALCS and never has missed a beat.
Dennis Eckersley continued as a Hall-of-Fame closer after surrendering Kirk Gibson’s famous home run in the 1988 World Series.
Brad Lidge gave up a monster home run to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS but managed to come back and be a key part of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series team.
But those are the exceptions. For every closer that comes back, there’s a Donnie Moore, Calvin Schraldi, Byung-Hyun Kim or Mitch Williams who are never the same.
Same thing with kickers. Mike Vanderjagt’s career imploded after he missed a game-winning field goal attempt against Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs.
Gary Andersen had a 22-year career as a kicker in the NFL but is remembered mainly for missing a 39-yarder in the NFC Championship game against Atlanta.
Need we mention the name Scott Norwood?
And in Baltimore, we had Steven Hauschka, who had the distinction of following Stover as Ravens kicker. Hauschka missed a game-winning field goal attempt against Minnesota, missed a chip shot field goal in Cincinnati two games later and was quickly run out of town on a rail.
Whether Billy Cundiff has what it takes to come back and regain the confidence of Ravens fans remains to be seen. We’ll find out though, as soon as he lines up for his first big field goal.
--- Sharing goat status with Cundiff is wide receiver Lee Evans. Every Ravens fans' lasting image from this game will be Evans, in the back of the endzone, the Super Bowl in his hands for a split second before Patriots corner Sterling Moore swiped it out. That close.
Evans didn’t secure the ball strongly enough, and he admitted in the locker room after the game he should have caught it. But it wasn’t a clean drop and Moore made a tremendous play on the ball. This dropped pass wasn’t as bad as the one T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped in the playoffs last year against Pittsburgh that hit him right in the chest. The Evans drop was a bang-bang play with a defender on him. I give Evans more of a mulligan than I do Cundiff.
That said, this was the second year in a row a veteran wide receiver couldn’t catch the most important pass of the season. Sooner or later, the Ravens are going to find someone that can hold on to the damn football.
--- The frustrating thing about this game was that the Patriots played exactly how the Ravens needed them to play for the Ravens to win. The defense bent, but didn’t break, and kept holding the prolific New England offense to field goals. The secondary played probably its best game of the season, not getting a lot of help from the pass rush.
When the defense needed to make plays at the end, they did. First with Jimmy Smith’s interception after what looked like a killer Joe Flacco pick, and with Ed Reed’s clutch breakup on third down late in the game that forced the Patriots to punt.
What’s doubly frustrating is that lot of things broke the Ravens way this year – from the schedule to beating Pittsburgh twice to Peyton Manning’s injury –and they still managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
--- The bad losses to Jacksonville and Seattle came back to bite the Ravens in the butt. If they win either of those games, they’re hosting New England instead of playing on the road. How would that have mattered? Well, the Ravens were undefeated at home. But more importantly, Cundiff didn’t miss a field goal at M&T Bank Stadium all year, yet strangely struggled on the road (11 for 20).
--- The John Harbaugh Ravens of the last four years have turned gut-churning, soul-crushing playoff losses into an art form. Other than the loss to Indianapolis in 2009, I don’t think you could ever truly say the other team was better. But the Ravens have made too many mistakes in big situations and cost themselves two AFC Championship games and last year’s divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh.
As a fan, I didn't think I could experience a more heartbreaking defeat than the one the Ravens foisted on me last season. I was wrong.
---The Ravens wasted a good playcalling day for Cam Cameron, in what might be his final game as offensive coordinator. The only playcall that might have been questionable was the one after Evans’ dropped pass. The Ravens still had third-and-one and could have run Ray Rice up the middle to pick up the first down, call a timeout and either taken one more shot at the endzone or let Cundiff take his time getting setup. But I get Cameron’s thinking there, he decided to take one more shot at the endzone on third down to win, figuring his kicker could easily salvage overtime by making a 32-yarder on fourth down.
--- You had the feeling something bad was gonna happen at the end when the Ravens failed to score a touchdown after Danny Woodhead fumbled the kickoff after Torrey Smith’s touchdown that gave the Ravens their first lead. They score seven instead of three there and they have New England on the ropes, down 24-16.
--- The Ravens also wasted one of the best games Flacco has ever played. After a jittery first two series', Flacco was superb. Once he got that long early bomb to Torrey Smith under his belt, Flacco was Joe Cool, firing lasers into tight windows, making plays with his legs and matching Tom Brady pass for pass. Flacco may have earned more respect in defeat than he got with any of his previous playoff wins.
He was certainly done no favors by his offensive line, which was terrible this postseason. Ozzie Newsome has a lot to figure out on a line that got Flacco sacked eight times in two playoff games. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie looked slow, left guard Ben Grubbs regressed this year and its still up in the air whether right tackle Michael Oher will ever develop into an elite tackle. Center Matt Birk is likely to retire, and unfortunately, after a fine season and career, the lasting image of Birk will be of Vince Wilfork pushing him into Flacco’s face on a key fourth-and-6 late in the game.
The Ravens line was unable to handle New England’s speed rushers on the outside or size up the middle. Wilfork killed Grubbs, Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda all game, leaving little running room for Rice and forcing Flacco to run for his life way too often.
My hunch is, McKinnie and Grubbs will walk as free agents, Birk will retire, Andre Gurode will be resigned to fill Birk’s spot, Oher will be shifted back to left tackle and Jah Reid, who the organization is high on, will be given every opportunity to win the right tackle job. I also think Ozzie is gonna be looking to draft some offensive line help; along with cornerback, O-line is the one position on the field where you can’t have enough good players.
--- The biggest two names looking for contract extensions this offseason will be Rice and Flacco. The good news is, with Haloti Ngata resigned, the Ravens can use their franchise tag on Rice this offseason, while Flacco has one more year left on his rookie deal.
Locking up running backs to big, long-term contracts is always risky business (see Chris Johnson, Larry Johnson, Shawn Alexander, etc) but Rice is only 24, he’s loved in the community and is a great candidate to take over as the face of the franchise when Ray Lewis finally retires.
As for Flacco, his performance against New England certainly validates for me that he should be the Ravens quarterback for the foreseeable future.
--- The only good thing I can say about this loss? At least it wasn’t to Pittsburgh.