The Next Level: The Inevitable Ascendance of Justin Tucker
Sometimes stories write themselves. When the Baltimore Ravens picked up Justin Tucker, a living legend in Longhorns football folklore, it seemed almost obvious that the stars would align to put him in a position to kick the 27-yard game-winner against the New England Patriots in Week 3 of the 2012 season. You just have to connect the dots in the constellations.
After Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the AFC Championship against New England last season, and the obligatory "God works in mysterious ways" speech from Ray Lewis, the writing was on the wall for a move. It was time to find a cooler kicker. Enter Tucker, an undrafted free agent famous to fans of the burnt orange but not necessarily a known national commodity.
Kickers are usually the butt of jokes in football, so it's easy to forget that there is a deeply competitive nature within them. To note, the battle between Cundiff and Tucker this past off-season is one you might see in a deleted scene from The Replacements, or at the very least Air Bud. In August, the two kicked in front of 20,000 fans, testing the strength of each others' legs. Anybody want to take a guess who won out? Yeah, it was the guy out of Austin who nailed a 62-yarder. Back against the wall, Cundiff felt the heat from Tucker to the point that he tried and missed a 65-yarder (which would be a record in a regular season NFL game). Not long after, Cundiff's bags were packed and Tucker was named the starter.
Of course, Tucker probably could have just pulled out his iPhone and played this video to seal the deal. It would have been enough for me.
Since he took over as the starting kicker, Tucker is a perfect 7-for-7 on field goal attempts and 11-of-11 on extra points. You can't ask for better, especially if you consider the Ravens cut off $1.81 million off their salary cap by going with Tucker. In a game dictated by the bottom line, the chance to grab a clutch kicker on the cheap only makes the former UT talent more attractive.
J-Tuck's value extends beyond money or game-winning opportunities and into the world of fantasy football. Any fantasy nut can tell you some kickers have the potential to be X-Factors (David Akers and Rob Bironas of years past stand out) and J-Tuck's combination of composure and a big leg put him in this category. As soon the Ravens chose Tucker, a certain Horns Illustrated writer made sure to pick him on his fantasy football team (This is the first and last time anyone will brag about choosing a kicker off waivers, by the way) and he has done nothing but pay dividends. In fact, the only person that has been able to stop Tucker is Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who is lucky he got off the hook after choosing to pass up a Tucker field goal in favor of a horrible 4th-and-1 run that New England immediately stiffed out.
Given Tucker's unflappable nature, it was actually surprising to see him almost miss the kick on Sunday. Call it a silver lining, but that kick actually has the chance to strengthen Tucker. Remember, he's only three games into his NFL career and the game had all the elements of a playoff battle. You couldn't put more pressure on a kicker in a regular season game. There was the story of Torrey Smith, who has played brilliantly in the wake of his younger brother's passing, the chance to exact revenge on the rival Patriots, and Tucker's own desire to shake the demons of Ravens' playoffs past. With one swift but shaky kick, Tucker excised almost all of Baltimore's questions at kicker.
If you continue to read the tea leaves, a Tucker playoff sighting would appear to fit naturally. In the nearer future it will likely be in a road game against the Houston Texans, where recent pariah Jacoby Jones will return to the town he so badly burnt last season in the playoffs with a mind-numbing fumble against Baltimore. Like we said, the stories and drama write themselves. It's just a matter of the figures falling into place to raise the tension.
Tucker will forever remain a larger than life figure in Austin and he's only begun to write his narrative in Baltimore. If the opening chapter on his professional career tells us anything, it's that plenty of NFL teams will soon kick themselves repeatedly for letting him pass them by.