OWINGS MILLS – Now that Shayne Graham has made it official by signing his one-year contract that’s worth up to $2.5 million, the veteran kicker is intent on justifying the Baltimore Ravens’ investment.
With Graham’s arrival, the Ravens have their most established kicker since Matt Stover.
The former Pro Bowl selection is coming off one of his worst seasons of his career as he flubbed two field goal attempts in the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff loss to the New York Jets, a setback that prompted Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to opine that Graham is haunted by demons from those misses.
Signed to a deal that includes a $1.5 million base salary and an additional $1 million of incentive clauses, Graham insists that he won’t dwell on those miscues as he competes with incumbent Billy Cundiff for the starting job.
Despite his playoff struggles and a 23 of 28 regular season last year, Graham is immediately regarded as the frontrunner for the position.
“I don’t think I would put so much pressure on it to have to prove anything, but that is motivation for myself that I know I’m better than that,” Graham said Thursday during his introductory press conference. “Even the best have bad days. When I’ve had things not go my way, I never folded and walked away from it. I kept trying and kept fighting.
“I’ve been cut several times before I ever played for Cincinnati, and it’s all those times that you feel like things are hard that you kind of appreciate what you have a little bit more and you want to fight a little harder. I think that’s something that will give me an edge when I come into camp here. I’m fighting for something, and I’m hungry.”
Graham, 32, is the fourth-most accurate kicker in league history and he once made all seven field goal attempts in a 2007 Cincinnati win at M&T Bank Stadium.
He converted a franchise-best 86.7 percent of his kicks during his tenure with the Bengals from 2003 to 2009.
“He knows how to handle pressure situations, he’s had a lot of success in this stadium and he’s a good kickoff guy,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Guys have missed big kicks in their career and that’s what makes them who they are. They come back and they make the next one. How does he handle the next kick?”
For his career, Graham has connected on 196 of 230 field goals for an 89.3 percent conversion rate. He has missed three career extra points in a decade in the NFL with two of them blocked.
It has been quite a while, though, since Graham had to audition for a roster spot.
“I’ve been in all the situations and I wouldn’t expect anything else,” Graham said. “That’s what the NFL is. Nothing is guaranteed for anyone, nothing is free. There are no enemies. We’re not going to be bitter towards each other.
“We’re going to get along great, and it’ll be a friendly competition. I think we both expect to walk in and win the job. .. Sometimes in order to keep a knife sharp, you have to grind it up a little bit.”
The Bengals and Graham both maintained that he was offered a chance to be back in Cincinnati, but no serious talks ever took place.
And the Bengals have moved on, replacing Graham with Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent.
Graham emphasized that he isn’t harboring any hard feelings toward his old team.
“I had the opportunity to go back there,” Graham said. “There’s really no true motivation or any type of a spite or any type of a feeling. They were very good to me. I love the organization. You move on and you make changes in life, and this is where it’s brought me and I’m happy to be here.
“When I play there, I’ll have friends in the stands and across the sidelines. Other than that, every kick is just as important than the next.”
However, Lewis didn’t describe Graham’s departure in similar positive terms.
Lewis told Cincinnati reporters that he believes that Graham hasn’t gotten over those playoff misses from 35 and 28 yards.
He basically suggested that Graham didn’t want to face his past, throwing down the gauntlet to his former kicker.
"He had an opportunity to come back here and regain what he had here," Lewis said.
"Unfortunately, he has the demons of the last kicks here when he didn’t make them. He’s got to overcome those demons and whether he could come back to this locker room and overcome them. That’s what the fans remember around here is the kicks that he missed. I wish him good luck."
Lewis said it was Graham’s decision to leave the team one season removed from being named the Bengals’ franchise player and making a $2.4 million salary.
“The guy who got Shayne going was his coach (Darrin Simmons) and he had an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, look coach I want to get this done and be a part of the team here,’” Lewis said. “And I don’t think he wanted to do that.”
The Ravens travel to Cincinnati for the second game of the season on Sept. 19.
Graham might hear some unpleasant remarks, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s kind of something I’ve always enjoyed, whether with college football, NFL football, it’s always been fun to feel that,” Graham said. “It’ll just be a little different when it’s a team that used to cheer for me.”
Before Graham can concern himself with squaring off with the Bengals, he’ll need to beat out Cundiff.
Cundiff dealt with Matt Katula’s snapping problems late in the season brought on by tendinitis in his elbow, converting 12 of 17 kicks for the Ravens after making all six of his attempts earlier last season when he was briefly with the Cleveland Browns.
Cundiff, who has made 73.6 percent of his career kicks, is due $1.1 million on a low restricted tender.
“For us to be in a situation where we’ve got two quality, veteran kickers competing and both guys embracing the opportunity to compete for the job, that’s what it’s all about,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what makes football players better. We’ve got to be excited that we’re in that kind of a situation.”
The Ravens first met with Graham and his agent at the NFL owners meetings in March and remained in touch before a fast negotiation that began earlier this week.
By signing Graham after June 1, he won’t count against their tally for next spring’s compensatory draft selections.
The former Virginia Tech standout has connected on 15 of 18 field goals in Baltimore, including a 51-yarder four years ago.
The Pulaski County, Va., native hit 31 of 34 kicks in 2007 (91.2 percent), 21 of 24 in 2008 (87.5 percent) 25 of 30 (83.3 percent) in 2006 and 28 of 32 in 2005 (87.5 percent
“I’ve had some of my best games in this stadium,” Graham said. “I’ve always enjoyed playing here, and it’s always been a great atmosphere. The conditions are something that I’m used to. I’ve been really excited for a chance to play in these colors in this stadium.”
If this competition and season goes well, Graham would like to be in Baltimore on a long-term basis.
“In any situation, security and peace of mind is something you’d always want,” he said. “Hopefully, things can work out. I’ll get past the preseason hopefully, do my best to win the job, help the team win games, and then all that stuff is in the future.. It’s beyond my control right now.
“Obviously, I’ve always admired this organization from afar. Playing in this stadium every year, knowing some guys, obviously it’d be a nice feeling to have. But I’ll take what I have right now.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.