For two seasons, Ravens PK Billy Cundiff was out of football, as the parlance for not being on an active roster during the NFL regular season goes. You can use the term when describing Cundiff's 2007 and '08 seasons and be perfectly correct in doing so, but to say it and stop there glosses over the fact that he was doing everything he could to get back into the game.
He wasn't the only one. Case in point: Three seasons ago, the Chiefs had Cundiff, whose wife, Nicole, was pregnant with their first child, in for a tryout. They didn't sign him, electing to go with John Carney instead. However, they told him they could be making another change at kicker, and quickly.
"They told us, 'We might make a move next week, so be ready for anything,' " Cundiff said. "So actually, my wife got induced to make sure we had the baby during the week just in case the weekend came and they might make a move after their game."
Cundiff laughed as he told the story last week as the Ravens prepared to play the Steelers in the AFC divisional-playoff round. The Cundiffs' daughter, Chloe, is 3 years old now, and she has a 9-month-old brother, Luke. Eventually, her father's NFL career would take off, not in Kansas City but in Baltimore.
After a regular season in which he connected on 26-of-29 field-goal attempts and led the NFL with 40 touchbacks, Cundiff, 30, was voted the recipient of the 2010 Golden Toe Award by the editors of Pro Football Weekly. The 40 touchbacks equalled the NFL record for a season since the league moved kickoffs back to the 30-yard line.
Cundiff is the second Ravens placekicker to capture the award, given to the NFL's most outstanding kicker or punter. Matt Stover earned the honor in 2000, when he converted 35-of-39 regular-season FG attempts for the Super Bowl champs.
"This is a great story (for) a lot of different reasons," Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said of Cundiff, voted to his first Pro Bowl this season, "but it's also a great human-interest story with Billy, because this is a classic story of a guy having faith in himself and his family backing him. His wife, Nicole, has been such a trooper.
"... It's not easy to be out where he was, trying to get back into the league. There's a lot of doubters. Billy never felt that way about himself. He knew he was good enough. He just needed to fight through it and get another opportunity, and he's made the most of it."
Cundiff broke into the NFL with Dallas in 2002, spending four seasons with the Cowboys. He also had a brief stint with New Orleans in '06. Then came two seasons marked by plenty of NFL auditions but no steady work. In the meantime, he earned an MBA from Arizona State University and began working for a venture-capital firm in Phoenix.
The new life he built away from the game gave him a new perspective, he said. When he returned to the NFL in '09 with Cleveland, he wasn't worried about potentially losing his job.
He made all six FG attempts in five games with the Browns, who needed a short-term replacement for Phil Dawson. His stint with Cleveland caught the attention of the Ravens, who were looking for a replacement for Steven Hauschka, who struggled as the successor to Stover. Cundiff connected on 12-of-17 FG attempts in seven regular-season games for Baltimore, which would sign PK Shayne Graham to compete with him in training camp.
Undaunted, Cundiff prepared as he never had prepared before, he said, honing his kickoff and field-goal technique throughout the offseason. The work paid off, as Cundiff won the job, with his kickoffs a major factor in Baltimore's decision.
Cundiff entered the regular season with 11 career touchbacks. He ended it with nearly five times that many. His wild success on kickoffs was a product of several factors. For starters, the Ravens wanted him to kick deep. That's not always the case; some teams prefer shorter, directional kicks, but head coach John Harbaugh generally wants his kickers to hammer away. Also, the 6-foot-1, Cundiff, who entered the NFL at 190 pounds in '02, has worked on adding strength throughout his career. Today, he's listed at 212 pounds. Finally, he has worked on lowering the trajectory of his kickoffs, striking the ball higher and with his shoelaces.
On field goals, Cundiff has emphasized keeping his head down and following through. He credits Ravens kicking coach Randy Brown for assisting in this area. All told, he has not missed a FG attempt since Nov. 7, a total of 18 consecutive kicks.
Cundiff, who praised the work of rookie LS Morgan Cox (now on injured reserve) and his holder, P Sam Koch, has relished working with the Ravens' special teams.
"I had so much fun just because I was surrounded by guys who just want to get better, and the focus was on, 'Hey, let's go out and be the best we can be,' " Cundiff said. "Because around this league, especially when it comes to special teams and specialists, a lot of times the attitude is just surviving."
Cundiff's ambition is greater than that.
Pro Football Weekly's annual awards issue (dated Jan. 23) is on sale now, featuring All-NFL, All-Conference and All-Rookie teams, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year — all selected by PFW editors and contributors along with members of the Professional Football Writers of America — as well as a Golden Toe Award selected by PFW editors only. The print edition also contains a preview of the draft outlook for the first four teams to make selections in April, as well as previews of the two conference championship games. The print edition is available at retail outlets around the country and also online at PFWstore.com , where you can purchase a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.