Monday, November 17, 2008
Long-range plan is working
By Mike Reiss
November 16, 2008
So much for the chip shot. Steven Hauschka, the local boy turned unsuspecting pro, was being tested from the get-go.
The Baltimore Ravens had driven into Houston Texans territory in the second quarter last Sunday, but the drive stalled at the 36-yard line. Coach John Harbaugh had a decision to make.
Leading, 9-3, with 1:06 remaining until halftime and facing fourth and 7, Harbaugh weighed two options: a better-safe-than-sorry punt or the slightly more risky choice of attempting a 54-yard field goal.
Realizing that a missed field goal would give the Texans the ball at the 44 with a chance to seize momentum and get the home crowd back into the game, Harbaugh decided to kick it anyway. Looking in the direction of his rookie kicker from Needham, he sent Hauschka out for his first career NFL field-goal attempt.
"I was definitely nervous for it, as anybody would be," said the 23-year-old Hauschka. "That's a long kick, not to mention it was my first one."
Then it all happened so fast - 1.3 seconds to be exact. Snapper Matt Katula fired the ball back to holder Sam Koch, it was placed on the left hash mark, and Hauschka swung his right leg through the ball.
It has the distance . . . it has the accuracy . . . it's good.
And with that, Hauschka put a check mark in the box that he never dreamed was possible - first career NFL field goal. The kid who never kicked field goals at Needham High (he was a soccer player), picked up the skill at Middlebury College, then spent one year as a post-grad kicker at North Carolina State in 2007 had officially arrived.
Even he finds it hard to believe.
"Going into N.C. State, I never thought there was a shot of making the NFL," said Hauschka, who had a signed picture of Adam Vinatieri's Snow Bowl kick in his childhood bedroom. "I figured it would be an accomplishment to be considered a good Division 1 college kicker. Coming out of it, I realized I was better than a lot of the guys, but even then, the NFL seemed unlikely."
Yet scouts took note of his size (6 feet 4 inches, 210 pounds), powerful leg, and consistent mental approach. That put him on the NFL radar, but like most kickers, Hauschka went undrafted in April.
With multiple options, he inked a deal with the Vikings, knowing it was highly unlikely he'd beat out veteran Ryan Longwell. But the idea for a young kicker is to get on tape for other teams to see - just as Chicago Pro Bowler Robbie Gould did in New England when Vinatieri had a firm hold on the job in 2005.
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By the second preseason game, when Hauschka struck his kickoffs deep and made all three of his field-goal attempts (21, 34, 48 yards), a pro career began to feel less like a dream and more like a possibility. What he didn't know at the time was that his future employer was on the other sideline.
The Ravens had taken note of his performance, and when the Vikings tried to slip Hauschka through waivers and sign him to their practice squad, he was claimed by Baltimore.
In one sense, it was the ultimate compliment because Harbaugh, the Ravens' first-year coach, was primarily a special teams coach before landing a top job. Yet the move also created stress for Hauschka because he had to relocate, whether he liked it or not.
The Ravens' situation turned out to be a great fit, as Hauschka now handles the kickoff chores (70.4-yard average on 11 attempts) and long field-goal attempts, while 40-year-old Matt Stover, now in his 19th season, takes care of everything else.
After throttling the Texans, 41-13, last Sunday, the Ravens are one of the NFL's surprise clubs at 6-3, and today they look to send shockwaves through the league by upsetting the Giants on the road.
"This is a big test for us to see where we're at," Hauschka said. "I think the coaches have instilled a hard-working mentality among the players and it carries through the whole organization.
"We're trying to have the reputation as a hard-hitting team, a relentless team, one that takes advantage of every opportunity we can. It seems to be working right now."
Improbably, it is working - not just for the team, but for its young long-range kicker as well.
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