OWINGS MILLS — A heavy dose of irony, awkwardness and drama will coincide Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts square off with the Baltimore Ravens.
During the same week that they discarded struggling kicker Steve Hauschka and signed journeyman Billy Cundiff to replace him, the Ravens will be competing against ultra-popular former kicker Matt Stover.
For Stover, who wasn’t given an opportunity to return when his contract expired after last season and experienced the disappointment of his old team telling him they wanted to go in a different direction, there’s apparently no hard feelings.
“It’ll be strange to be on the other sideline to say the least,” Stover told Indianapolis reporters Wednesday. “It’ll be fun because what a great organization to go back to the fans that I’ve come to know and love. Good people there. My family’s still in Baltimore, but, hey, let’s go win this game for the Colts.
“No bitter feelings. Been around too long not to understand this business. When a team’s ready to move on, they’re ready to move on. Wish you could change their mind sometimes, but you can’t. Thank goodness the Colts came calling.”
In 13 seasons in Baltimore, Stover, 41, epitomized what a clutch kicker should be as he converted so many important field goals and became one of the top players in franchise history.
Now, he’s coming back to Baltimore in a different uniform after the Ravens decided to go with Hauschka during the offseason rather than carry an extra kicker to handle kickoffs and longer field goals to account for Stover’s decline in leg strength.
It will probably be tough for fans to see Stover with the Colts after his long tenure here in addition to the old memories of those infamous Mayflower vans uprooting the team on a snowy night.
Stover has connected on all six of his field goals for the undefeated Colts while filling in for an injured Adam Vinatieri.
In retrospect, Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that he wishes the team still had Stover as his kicker.
“I know it’s a hot-button topic,” Harbaugh said. “I guarantee you one thing: It would be nice to have Matt Stover kicking for us right now. We’re not afraid of that. Things just didn’t work out throughout the offseason.
“We had a plan all along to bring him back if we needed him, and, all of a sudden, the Colts signed him. It’s pretty juicy and I’m looking forward to see what happens. If we could have Matt here, we would have Matt here.”
The second-most accurate kicker in league history, Stover said he has nothing against Harbaugh about the team’s decision to go in a different direction.
Stover turned down a chance to sign with the New York Jets and play for Rex Ryan rather than cost his friend, Jay Feely, his job. And he tried out for the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants prior to signing with the Colts last month.
“John and I had a good relationship,” Stover said. “We kicked ourselves into the AFC championship last year.”
For the Ravens, it’s going to be a strange feeling to watch Stover running onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium wearing that horseshoe on his helmet.
“Weird,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “He’s one of the better men that I’ve ever been around in my life. Even when he was in the crunch time of one of those big kicks, I would just walk by and say, “Just do you.’
“To see him on the other side will definitely be awkward. He’s a class guy. You know that in clutch times, Stover is always going to be there.”
For the Ravens, Stover gave them the bedrock of stability as he connected on 19 game-winning field goals and had a stretch of no misses in 24 fourth-quarter tries over a three-year span.
“To see Matt on the other side will be weird,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “Hopefully, he won’t kick a game-winning field goal. I might have to go out there and trip him.”
The Ravens are attaching their hopes now to Cundiff, a former Dallas Cowboys kicker who hit every field goal this season for the Browns while filling in for an injured Phil Dawson.
Cundiff was chosen over Mike Nugent primarily because of his superior distance on kickoffs after the Ravens auditioned both kickers last week.
Cundiff got the call from the Ravens on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Hauschka flubbed a 36-yard field goal and had a low-traveling extra point blocked in a 16-0 win Monday night over the Browns.
With friends over at his house to watch the Monday night game while he tended to his daughter, Cundiff quickly became aware that there was a chance the Ravens were going to need him.
“Finally, the phone rang and within two hours, my bag was packed and I was on my way to the airport,” Cundiff said after signing his one-year contract. “In the NFL, it’s a replacement business. You just understand that no matter where you go, the guy either did really well before you or the guy struggled a little bit.
“You’re brought in here to make field goals. If you don’t, you’re shown the door. My objective is to come out, provide the team with some stability, make kicks and hopefully help the team win.”
Cundiff made six field goals for Cleveland this season and every extra point, hitting the game-winning 18-yard field goal against the Buffalo Bills in the Browns’ lone victory this season. His longest field goal was 31 yards.
For his career, Cundiff has bounced around with stints with the New Orleans Saints as a kickoff specialist before two years out of the league while he got his master’s degree and pursued a career at a venture capital firm in Phoenix. He has also spent time with the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and the Detroit Lions.
Cundiff has converted 66 of 89 field goals, never missing a kick from 30 yards or less.
“He’s been a talented guy throughout his whole career,” Harbaugh said. “So, you kind of start with that foundation of talent. That kind of means a lot. He’s had success. His career numbers are pretty good.
“We’ll just see how it goes. There’s just no way to accurately foresee exactly what’s going to happen. He’s a veteran kicker who has been in these situations before and we think that will help us.”
With the Cowboys, Cundiff hit 60 of 82 field goals. That includes a long field goal of 56 yards.
He beat out Nugent because he had a stronger leg.
“They were very close,” Harbaugh said. “Probably the kickoff difference. They both have similar stats. They both looked very similar in the workouts as far as making field goals.
“They were around 85 percent in the workouts, maybe closer to 90 percent when you start combining the two workouts, but Billy is probably a little further along in kickoffs.”
Sunday figures to be an interesting situation, especially with the injection of drama surrounding Stover’s return.
Both the Ravens and Stover seem to be bracing for an emotional day.
“I always expect it to be a game-winning field goal,” Stover said. “When it’s against your old team or against a new team, what you always do as a kicker is you expect it to be coming down to a last-second field goal so if it comes down to that you’ll be ready. I am ready to get out there and kick the game-winner.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.