BALTIMORE — Early Sunday evening, on his 38th field goal attempt of the season, under optimal conditions at M&T Bank Stadium — warm temperatures, dry field, wind at his back, a mere 37 yards to the goal posts — Justin Tucker did something remarkable and stunning, arguably as remarkable and stunning as the game-winning 61-yarder he had hit the week before to beat Detroit and cap a 6-for-6 night.
The snap was fine. The hold was fine. It was the Baltimore Ravens’ biggest game of the season to that point, late December against the New England Patriots, and the man who has become a Baltimore cult hero for both his kicking prowess and his colorful personality swung his right leg through the ball — and missed.
And with that, his first miss in more than three months, Tucker could be sure of one thing: The week that followed would be nothing like the week that had just passed.
There would be no mid-week news conferences in front of a horde of reporters, no awards for AFC special teams player of the week, no fluffy features on the local newscasts. There would be nobody printing up T-shirts with Tucker’s face and the phrase “I Got It” — his words to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh just before the winning kick in Detroit — and no talking heads blabbing breathlessly on ESPN, as Skip Bayless did on “First Take” the week before, that Tucker was the “most spectacular weapon in football.”
“I look at it pretty simply,” Tucker said following the Ravens’ 41-7 loss, in which his 0-for-1 performance on field goals was hardly their biggest problem. “I missed a kick. Just move on, and I’ll make the next one.”
Perhaps the problem with Sunday’s miss against the Patriots was that the stakes and the degree of difficulty simply weren’t high enough. The Ravens were trailing 20-0 early in the fourth quarter, and a make wasn’t going to drastically improve their odds of winning.
Had it been later in the game, and a closer score, perhaps things would have gone differently. In the past two years, Tucker has had six attempts in the final two minutes with the Ravens trailing by three points or fewer, and he has made all six — including the 61-yarder with 38 seconds left to beat the Lions on Monday Night Football. He is also 10 of 11 from 50-plus yards in his career — his 90.9 percent success rate from that distance far exceeding this year’s league average of 65.2 percent — and had converted 33 straight attempts overall before Sunday’s uncharacteristic miss.
But Tucker’s success at booting footballs through the 181 / 2 feet of space between the uprights is only half of his appeal. While other players grumble about fantasy football owners hounding them on social media, Tucker actually took a moment after his game-winner in Detroit to give a shout-out to those who own him in fantasy leagues.
“Thank you for picking me up,” he said that night. “It means a lot to me. And hopefully I can continue to contribute to the successes of your respective teams.”
He is also a former music major at the University of Texas who trained as an opera singer and has dabbled in hip-hop production. His agent says he has standing offers to appear with two local opera companies when the season is over. A recent Dr. Pepper commercial showed Tucker, a baritone, alternately belting out an aria from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” on a spot-lit stage and booming footballs off a tee from the same stage into the balcony.
The Ravens may not have known exactly what they were getting when they signed Tucker as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2012, and invited him to compete against incumbent Billy Cundiff in training camp. Four other place kickers were drafted that year, while Tucker’s phone never rang, a slight that still motivates him. In training camp, he beat out Cundiff for the job, then hit 30 of his 33 field goal tries that season, the second-best performance by a rookie in NFL history, and capped his year with a 47-yard, double-overtime game-winner at Denver in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
“He was competing for a job, and he never wavered,” Harbaugh told reporters last week, recalling Tucker’s training camp vanquishing of Cundiff. “He made kicks, and every one of those kicks was a pressure kick because he was trying to establish himself and win a job. I don’t think anything has changed.”
The closest thing to a crisis of confidence that Tucker has experienced came this season in Week 2, when he missed a pair of kicks against Cleveland. But the crisis, such as it was, passed quickly. He hit all three of his tries the next week against Houston and didn’t miss again until this past Sunday against New England, snapping a streak of 33 straight makes.
“I’ve got experiences, personally, I can draw upon,” Tucker said after Sunday’s loss. “I go back to Week 2. I struggled in one game, had a couple of misses. And just like anyone else in here, the focus is on next week and bouncing back.”
The Ravens’ loss Sunday means they no longer control their playoff destiny. They travel to Cincinnati this week for their season finale, needing a victory and some help — a loss by either Miami or San Diego — to sneak into the playoffs as the second wild card.
Sunday’s blowout loss notwithstanding, the Ravens are accustomed to playing in tight games this season; entering the New England game, nine of their previous 11 games were determined by three or fewer points. There is every reason to suspect this Sunday’s finale at Cincinnati — and with it, the Ravens’ playoff hopes — will come down to the final seconds, and to Tucker’s right foot.
It is a scenario the Ravens — and one suspects, a good many fantasy owners — would gladly take every time.