I have a deep and abiding concern about the Ravens’ special teams, which are, as several fans have already quipped, “special” indeed. John Harbaugh is a swell head coach who has set several franchise and league records for wins, for which Baltimore and I are grateful. Our special teams, however, have gone to hell in a handcart since Harbaugh came to Charm City—an ironic development, as he was a special teams coach for nine seasons with the Eagles before the Ravens hired him. Now Baltimoreans have the pleasure of knowing that two of our first three head coaches have ended up underachieving or downright failing at their “specialties.” (Brian Billick, who planned attacks for the dynamic Randy Moss Vikings, was known as an “offensive guru” when he came to Baltimore. Just let that marinate.)
Our special teams weren’t always substandard: they used to revolve around the now-retired Matt Stover: a nice guy, a good teammate, and a reliable kicker. Originally a member of the Cleveland Browns, Stover joined the purple ranks in 1996, when the Browns were unceremoniously transplanted to Baltimore as Art Modell pretended he wasn’t pulling his own Mayflower Incident. While Ray Lewis morphed into the face of the franchise in those early years, Stover did the grunt work, kicking field goal after field goal as the Ravens became “the Ravens”: a run-first team built around defense. Ravens fans particularly like to reminisce about a five-game stretch during our Super Bowl season in which the team eked out two wins despite not scoring a single touchdown—wins that later gave us a wildcard berth—because this was when we met, dated and fell in love with Stovetop and his golden leg.
It’s no surprise that after Stover was released by the Ravens in 2009 (and subsequently signed by the Indianapolis Professional Football Team), the Ravens’ special teams went downhill faster than Brandon Jacobs trying not to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl, anchored-slash-subverted-by Steven Hauschka and Billy Cundiff. The inaugural replacement for Stover, Hauschka was tolerably inept before he missed a field goal against the powerhouse Favre-led Vikings that would have let the Ravens leave Minnesota with a last-second win. In 2010 Cundiff was brought in mid-season to replace Hauschka. Initially Cundiff impressed us, looking every bit the part of a hard worker who was grateful and enthusiastic to refresh his career with a contender. Two years later, however, and the Chesapeake resounds with suicidal groans at the mention of his name.
To be fair to Cundiff, and to address the large land mammal now roaming the room, he is not the reason the Ravens didn’t go to the Super Bowl last season. His kick, as Ray Lewis acknowledged in a post-game speech, would only have sent the AFC Championship Game into overtime, where Cam Cameron would have sabotaged the team on his own with a maddeningly conservative game plan. But while Cundiff is not the reason for the loss, he is the reason we fans are presently mired in nihilism despite four years of excellence. Whenever we watch packaged highlights of last season and get to the part where some stone-handed imbecile drops a ball that lets the Evil Empire go the big dance, sometimes—just sometimes—we are also forced to watch the equally inconceivable play that follows, in which a paid professional misses a field goal that most high schoolers can make in their sleep. This is a lot like having to watch someone drown a bag full of puppies and sometimes—just sometimes—having to see the tiny furry bodies being tossed into a snake pit afterward. Furthermore, each time we see the kick, we become oddly convinced that we will see a new angle that explains why the miss happened, or that we will actually see the ball go through the uprights, because, you know, I bet a small part of it actually went inside the left goalpost, and there is just a league-wide conspiracy to screw over the Ravens, because everybody hates us and also everyone is jealous, and no one can miss that sort of kick, right?! … Every Ravens fan is now a walking suppressed memory. Billy Cundiff is my pro-drug.
Ignore the fact that Cundiff was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010. Ignore the fact that he tied the league record for touchbacks in 2011. Ignore the fact that he is probably a decent man whose life does not deserve to have been ruined by something as cosmically insignificant as a missed field goal. The man is just not good at his job. Even the kicks he does convert go on awful, circuitous journeys before they somehow death-rattle through the uprights. Every Cundiff field goal attempt, make or miss, is punctuated by nervous murmuring and hand-wringing in the City of Baltimore. This is new for us: we’re used to sucking on offense, but we’re also used to getting three measly points in our impotence. Call us greedy.
These next few weeks might (and should) be end game for Cundiff, on the Ravens and possibly in the NFL. Not only has a standout rookie, Justin Tucker, thoroughly outkicked him in training camp and preseason, but nothing in Cundiff’s history suggests that his Pro Bowl campaign is the norm while the missed Patriot kick and his ensuing bitterness are the anomaly. Quite the opposite. Before being acquired by the Ravens in 2010, Cundiff had been on eight different teams in nine different seasons: during that time his longest stint lasted eight months, while his shortest lasted SEVEN DAYS. How does the old saying go? Another team’s and another team’s and another team’s and another team’s and another team’s and another team’s and another team’s and another team’s trash is the Ravens’ treasure? If Harbaugh has any sort of special teams prowess, he will ditch the vet and start the rookie. Baltimore will forgive the errors of a talented neophyte—but nevermore will we trust the star of the most depressing meme in history.