OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Billy Cundiff has been diligently applying the same philosophy toward the Baltimore Ravens’ ultra-tight kicking competition as he does to each actual swing of his right leg.
That is, the incumbent kicker simply keeps his head down and waits for the officials to signal if the football has split the uprights.
As the Ravens head into Thursday night’s preseason finale against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, Cundiff is banking on his singular focus paying dividends as he tries to convince the organization to award him the kicking job over former Pro Bowl kicker Shayne Graham.
“My mindset hasn’t changed,” Cundiff said. “The one thing I’ve been able to lean on the entire time is focusing on what I have to get done today, not the ramifications of today. I think about meeting my goals every time I step on the field. I want to make my kicks every time and I want to get all my kickoffs into the end zone.
“I know my expectations. If I meet those, I’ll exceed what they want. The team will let you know if they don’t want you. Trust me, I know. I’ll stay here until they tell me to go home. Hopefully, I’m here. I’m really not too worried about it.”
This kicking duel couldn’t be much closer, at least at first glance.
Cundiff has connected on all three of his preseason field goals, hitting field goals from 26, 42 and 25 yards.
Graham has made two of his three kicks, accurate from 32 and 24 yards and narrowly missing a 50-yard try.
Neither has flubbed an extra point.
However, Cundiff, 30, has flashed slightly better leg strength overall.
Cundiff also was roughly five percent more accurate overall during training camp in Westminster, and he had a strong night when he boomed three kickoffs to at least the goal line in the third preseason game against the New York Giants.
It’s extremely close between Cundiff, the journeyman, and Graham, the former all-star.
“The kicker situation is really tough, and tough in a really good way,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh , a longtime special-teams maven. “They’ve both done really well. They’ll be outstanding NFL kickers this year, without question.
“It’s just a matter of which guy we feel like best fits us when the time comes. Honestly, we don’t know that right now. So, we probably put that thing off and we’ll probably continue to put it off until the very last minute, and then we’ll have to make a decision.”
Graham, 32, is the fourth-most accurate kicker in league history.
Unwanted by the Cincinnati Bengals after missing two crucial kicks in a playoff loss to the New York Jets last January, Graham has alternately flashed a lot of talent and also some nagging inconsistencies after entering camp as the frontrunner to win the job.
“I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball well,” Graham said. There are a couple of days I’d like to take back. I don’t know if there’s any unbalancing of the scales right now. We’ve got one week to get it figure out. Luckily for me, my job is not to make that decision. My job is to make the kicks when I can and make the best of those opportunities.
“The tough one will be upstairs when they have to make that decision. No matter what happens, it’s justifiable to either end. Obviously, we all want to be the one who wins out.”
Graham is an established kicker who has made 85.2 percent of his career field goals.
Cundiff has a career percentage of 73.6 percent.
He built up some trust with the Ravens last season when he salvaged their kicking situation after an unsuccessful Steve Hauschka experiment was halted.
He made 18 of 23 field goals for the season, including hitting all seven kicks with the Cleveland Browns during an emergency stint before joining the Ravens. He also endured some late-season snapping issues when Matt Katula had a bout with tendinitis.
Cundiff has journeyed around the NFL, suiting up in nine different uniforms.
“I’d like to be here,” Cundiff said. “That’s what I’ve got my mindset on. I think it helps that I’ve had a whole offseason and preseason with the same team. Obviously, I’ve been bouncing around a lot.
“It’s a great to be with a team that takes special teams very seriously. I’ve found a place where their expectations are just as high as mine.”
For Cundiff and Graham, neither player has been given a financial commitment from the Ravens.
Neither was given a signing bonus. Cundiff was signed to the low restricted tender of $1.226 million.
Graham was signed to a $1.5 million contract with an additional $1 million worth of incentive clauses. None of that money is guaranteed.
“Circumstance rules a lot of kickers’ lives, everything has to line up,” Cundiff said. “I got a chance to get my foot in the door last year. When it came time for a competition, they felt comfortable enough that they were going to really let it be a true competition.
“A lot of guys in other places, it may not be a true competition and they already have their roster filled out. This isn’t about pushing a guy. This is about competing for the job.”
Graham was getting ready for a 41-yard field goal attempt in the first half last weekend, but wide receiver Derrick Mason was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing with officials.
The Ravens opted to punt instead of giving Graham the opportunity to boot a 56-yard kick.
In this narrow of a competition, a moment lost like that one can make a difference.
“You look forward to having every opportunity you can get, but all you can do is be ready,” Graham said. “I hit the ball well during pregame and I felt like that was a kick I could potentially make. You play it smart with that much time left in the half.
“It’s completely understandable, but you want to have that opportunity to prove something. You want to get that extra little edge to give yourself some more worth.”
Cundiff is a family man whose wife, Nicole, and two kids are back in Phoenix waiting to hear if he’s going to be the Ravens’ kicker.
Saturday, when the Ravens will let Cundiff and Graham know about their decision, can’t come soon enough.
Cundiff isn’t thinking about where he’ll land if this doesn’t work out.
“That kind of thinking is so counterproductive for me,” he said. “I’m a guy that’s 30 years old and I’ve got two kids and I’ve been bouncing around the league, and this is case that all my focus is on the Ravens until they tell me otherwise. If they do tell me otherwise, then I’ll evaluate whatever transpires."