When Ravens PK Billy Cundiff got his NFL break with Dallas in 2002, routinely crushing kickoffs was not within his scope.
"I got in the league, I'm used to kicking off from the 35, with a two-inch tee," said Cundiff, who played collegiately at Drake, "and I weighed about 190 pounds. So I had a lot of things going against me."
He chuckled as he told the story. Look at statistics now and it's hard to stifle a laugh, too, one of amazement. In the first 12 games in 2010, Cundiff, 30, had more than three times as many touchbacks (a league-high 34) as he had in his first 70 NFL games (11), leaving him just seven short of setting a record for touchbacks since the NFL moved kickoffs back to the 30-yard line in 1994.
How does a placekicker not known for a powerful leg suddenly become the NFL's king of touchbacks? According to the 6-1, 212-pound Cundiff, it was something he never set out to do. He had tinkered with his kickoff form for years, but he began to have sustained success kicking long this summer, as he competed with Shayne Graham to be the Ravens' kicker. Cundiff won the job, with his kickoffs a deciding factor, and he has proceeded to have his finest season to date, both on kickoffs as well as field goals.
On field goals, he praised holder Sam Koch and rookie long-snapper Morgan Cox for their work, and he credited kicking coach Randy Brown with helping him refine his technique.
"Right now, I'm keeping my head down a little longer, kind of going downfield a little more instead of falling off of it, and I'm really kind of coming up through the ball to my target," said Cundiff, 19-of-22 on FG attempts through 12 games, noting that those improvements, along with the confidence he has built through his performance, have been primary factors in his success.
On kickoffs, Cundiff said he's striking the ball where the lower-third and the middle-third of the ball meet, reducing the spin on the ball, which can cut down on distance.
Out of football in 2007 and '08, Cundiff made 18-of-23 FG attempts in stints with Cleveland and Baltimore last season. The time away from the NFL taught him to not dwell on errors, he said, a mindset that helped him this summer.
"Instead, I shifted my focus to, 'Let's get better each and every day,' he said. "And as cliché as that sounds, that's truly what helped me win that competition. I wasn't worried about the negative stuff; I was only worried about getting better. And my focus was so sharp. I was going to make sure that when I ended that training camp that I was better than when I started, and that I was the best I could possibly be. And it worked.
"That's still what I think gives me confidence to this day, knowing that I feel like truly I've only scratched the surface."