Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is playing his way to a team MVP award.
Last season, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco led his team to a Super Bowl victory by throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the postseason. Flacco's performance earned him a new $120 million contract and established him as one of the better franchise quarterbacks in the league.
However, an unsung hero of that brilliant postseason run was rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who hasn't taken his foot off the gas pedal in his second season. In fact, Tucker is the biggest secret weapon in the NFL, given little love and credit outside of Baltimore for what he has done for the Ravens in just two seasons.
Tucker was an undrafted free agent when he joined the Ravens in May of 2012 after playing college ball at the University of Texas. He immediately was embroiled in a battle for the team's sole kicker job with incumbent Billy Cundiff.
Cundiff was not a popular man in Baltimore at the time—he had missed a 32-yard field goal in January against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game that would have sent the game into overtime had he made it. The Ravens knew that turning over a new leaf with Tucker would be a great way for the team to put that disappointment behind them. He just had to win the job.
Last preseason gave Tucker the opportunity to do just that. In what was considered shocking at the time—at least to Cundiff—the Ravens gave Tucker the start in the team's 2012 Week 3 preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and sat Cundiff on the bench. Preseason Week 3 is considered a dress rehearsal for the regular season, with starters getting their most playing time before the games count for real.
The writing was on the wall.
Tucker made all six of his extra-point attempts and both field-goal attempts, including his longest one of 53 yards, in the Ravens' 48-17 defeat of the Jaguars. The performance sealed the fates of both Tucker and Cundiff. Tucker was named the starter by default two days later when the team released Cundiff.
Rookie kickers can often be a gamble, but the Ravens' choice to stand by Tucker instead of the veteran Cundiff paid off. It took until Week 4 of his rookie season for Tucker to miss a field-goal attempt and until Week 10 to miss his second. In total, Tucker missed just three field goals in the 2012 regular season and none in the postseason.
Unlike Cundiff, Tucker also came through in clutch playoff situations. The Ravens took on the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs last year, knowing that a win would take them to the conference championship for a second straight season.
Has made 64 of 59, career, or 92.2%
The game went into overtime tied at 35-all, and near the end of the first overtime period, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was intercepted by Ravens corner Corey Graham at Denver's 45-yard line. The Ravens were a few simple run plays away from needing Tucker to win the game. Just under two minutes into the second overtime, Tucker's moment came from 47 yards out.
Tucker made the field goal—the Mile High Miracle, as it's now known—and with it, shook off the specter of Cundiff's miss the previous year. Tucker's legend, such as it was, grew quickly. He became more than the rookie who replaced Cundiff. He was Baltimore's secret superstar.
It wasn't the first time that Tucker had won a game for the Ravens last season. In Week 3 against the Patriots, his last-second field goal gave the Ravens a 31-30 victory. He also accounted for all of the points the Ravens scored in their 9-6 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.
Tucker proved that he could be relied upon, having missed only three field goals all season. He was good on all four of his field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more.
Suddenly, the Ravens had one of the best kickers in the NFL. A great kicker can be just as valuable to a team as a sure-handed receiver or a dynamic running back. It's an important weapon for a team to have in its back pocket, but one few can boast of having.
Tucker went 4-for-4 in his postseason field-goal attempts and got his team its much-desired rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, which the Ravens also won. Tucker scored the Ravens' final points in their Super Bowl defeat of the San Francisco 49ers with a 38-yard field goal.
The question last offseason was whether Tucker could repeat this success in his second season. What he accomplished for the Ravens in his rookie year was all well and good, but in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, a case of the yips can cost even the most reliable veteran kickers their jobs. Simply look at what happened to Cundiff in Baltimore the year before, or to David Akers in San Francisco.
Kickers are usually the highest-scoring players in the NFL, excluding quarterbacks. Kickers must be consistent and reliable every week, especially in clutch situations. Entering the season as a second-year player, Tucker still hadn't really proven himself yet.
The 2013 season didn't start flawlessly for Tucker. Though he made both of his field goals and three extra-point attempts against the Broncos to open the season, the Ravens lost, 49-27. The next week, he missed both of his field-goal attempts against the Cleveland Browns while Cundiff—now the Browns kicker—made both of his.
Had the magic worn off so soon? Not quite.
Those two misses would be the last of the season for Tucker to this point. Tucker has made 27 consecutive field goals this year, which is the longest active streak in the league through Week 14. He's approaching the Ravens' franchise streak of 36, set by Matt Stover over the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Tucker's has continued to win the Ravens games.
Tucker kicked the winning field goal in a Week 10 overtime defeat of the rival Cincinnati Bengals, a game that could have playoff implications in a few weeks. In Baltimore's Thanksgiving night win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tucker scored 16 of Baltimore's 22 points with a franchise record-tying five field goals and one extra point.
Along with Jacoby Jones, Tucker was named one of NBC's Madden Players of the Game. Tucker had long snapper Morgan Cox and holder Sam Koch join him at the celebratory Thanksgiving table after the win. He earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors for his Week 13 effort and for kicking 14 field goals in November.
Tucker has made 29 of 31 attempted field goals this season for a 93.5 percent accuracy rate, better than all but four other kickers in the league. He was the seventh-most accurate field goal kicker in 2012 at 90.9 percent. Overall, he has made 92.2 percent of his field-goal attempts in his brief career with just five misses. That includes making four of five field-goal attempts of 50 yards, or more, with a long of 56 yards.
Short, long and anything in between—no distance gives Tucker trouble.
In fact, with Baltimore's offense more erratic than ever and its defense playing solid, but not outstanding football, Tucker looks locked in as his team's Most Valuable Player this year. With the Ravens facing a tough schedule ahead, Tucker could be the key to winning and to Baltimore keeping hold of the AFC's sixth playoff seed.
Quarterbacks get all the attention in the NFL while wide receivers make the flashiest plays. There are also defenders who sack quarterbacks and pick them off, with running backs who literally carry would-be tacklers over the goal line. There are a lot of exciting things that happen on the football field every week while simple field goals are taken as a given.
But it takes skill and concentration to earn those three points. It takes being ready to go at a moment's notice and it takes a steely, steady kicker who can make 27 field goals in a row, kick game-winning field goals and kick his team to a playoff victory.
As one of the best kickers in the league, Tucker is clearly Baltimore's secret weapon, quietly helping make the Ravens postseason contenders yet again.