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Football notes

Long-range plan is working

Kicker from Needham gets on the scoreboard

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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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.

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.

Heads will roll

Last offseason, four teams hired new head coaches, but that number figures to double - or triple - this offseason.

Three clubs - San Francisco, Oakland, and St. Louis - already have interim coaches in place. Furthermore, the Seahawks have a planned transition from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora, and the Colts - if Tony Dungy decides this is the year to step aside - already know that associate head coach Jim Caldwell will take over.

Teams that could be looking at a change:

  • Lions: After a 7-9 campaign in 2007, Detroit was supposed to be rising this season under third-year coach Rod Marinelli. Instead, the Lions are 0-9, the only winless club left in the league.

  • Chiefs: Herm Edwards, in his third season, is selling a youth movement along with general manager Carl Peterson. But the progression under Edwards has headed in the wrong direction, from 9-7 to 4-12 to 1-8.

  • Cowboys: Owner Jerry Jones said last week that his team will make the playoffs, which, in effect, puts Wade Phillips on notice.

  • Browns: Romeo Crennel, in his fourth season, deserves a better fate, although the Browns (3-6) are not meeting the sky-high expectations created by management's spending spree.

  • Bengals: Ownership has backed Marvin Lewis, but this year's injury-filled 1-8 start has the team headed in the wrong direction.

  • Chargers: Norv Turner is in his second season, and the Chargers, thought to be a Super Bowl contender this year, are a disappointing 4-5. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell has already been let go.

  • Jaguars: Although he has a contract through 2011, Jack Del Rio, now in his fifth season, has had his name attached with college jobs in the past. The Jaguars are 4-5.

    Titans’ chances a perfectly good issue to address

    Can the Titans, now 9-0, go undefeated?

    They play at Jacksonville today, followed by a home game against the Jets and then a Thanksgiving tilt in Detroit. From there, the games are against the Browns (home), Texans (road), Steelers (home), and Colts (road).

    A sampling of opinion on the Titans' possibilities, and their makeup as a team, from past NFL players and coaches:

    Dan Reeves: "Last year was incredible [with the Patriots] and I just don't know if we'll see it again. I think it's so difficult to do. I've seen the Titans and they're a real good football team, but I believe the odds are against them. Then you look at the way their division is going now, and it could be a situation where they want to rest some people later in the year. You always like to keep the momentum going but there's a balance: Do you worry about being undefeated or do what's necessary to win a championship?"

    Mark Bavaro: "They're a good, solid team and sometimes those are the sneaky teams that don't catch the attention of many people. They don't make many mistakes and they pound people. They're definitely sneaking up on the league this year, especially compared to the Patriots last year. Could they do it? The odds are that they probably won't. At the same time, I don't necessarily see the competition out there to say it definitely wouldn't happen."

    Brian Billick: "I think the Titans are a little like our [Ravens] 2000 championship year, or the 2002 Tampa Bay team. There was a void of quarterback play at that time. A team that could play dominant defense, run the ball, and have competent play at the quarterback position could win a championship. With the package that Tennessee has right now, I don't know why they couldn't parlay it into a championship."

    John Madden: "I'm really impressed with Tennessee and the job that they are doing, but do I think they'll go undefeated? The answer would be no. Then again, I'm the same guy that didn't think the Patriots would go undefeated."

  • Ben Coates: "Anything is possible, and I think they can do it. The thing I really like about them, being a former tight end, is how they get those tight ends involved in the passing game, Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler. They're not a dynamic offense, but they take whatever is given to them. I'm hoping they do it."

    Etc.

    Bang for their bucks
    Based on the way he contributed to the Jets' 34-31 victory over the Patriots Thursday night, cornerback Ty Law looks like a bargain. According to NFL Players Association figures, Law's one-year deal is for the veteran minimum of $830,000, and the Jets guaranteed him $183,230, paid in advance. Because there are seven pay periods remaining this year, Law gets seven-17ths of the $830,000, which seems more than reasonable for a player of his caliber.

    Defending their turf
    There is no Southern hospitality when it comes to the four teams in the NFC South. The Panthers (5-0), Buccaneers (4-0), Falcons (4-0), and Saints (4-1, with one "home" win in London) have been rude hosts to opposing teams. At this pace, the NFC South is on pace to surpass the 2003 NFC West (.813) for the best combined home winning percentage since 1970. There are 14 NFC South home games remaining, and teams in the division must combine for 10 wins to set the mark.

    Quarterback was grounded
    Walpole's Todd Collins, the Redskins' valuable No. 2 quarterback, had an off week to forget. Back in the Bay State last week, Collins developed a severe sinus infection and ruptured left eardrum that landed him in the hospital. He couldn't fly back to the team, but proving he's as resourceful off the field as on it, he had a backup plan, hopping in the car with his father for the seven-hour ride to Virginia.

    Pocket protectors
    Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and free agent running back Michael Turner have helped reshape the surprising Falcons' offense and have been the catalysts to the team's unexpected 6-3 start. But not to be overlooked is the team's improved pass protection. One year after their quarterbacks were sacked 47 times, the Falcons have allowed just 12 sacks this season.

    Novel approach

    When he was a student at Danvers High School, former NFL tight end Mark Bavaro remembered reading "North Dallas Forty" by Peter Gent - a fictional account of eight days in the life of a pro football player - and thinking to himself, "Maybe someday I could do something like that." Now he has. Bavaro's entertaining novel, "Rough and Tumble," was published in September. He describes the plot this way: "It's a guy in the last year of his career going through the dying process of the NFL, sort of a thriller set in the football world."

    They meet again
    When the Packers visit the Bears today, it will mark the 175th game between the clubs, the most between NFL franchises. It's a mark that figures to hold for some time, considering the rest of the top matchups: Chicago/Detroit, 158; Detroit/Green Bay, 156; Giants/Washington, 151; Giants/Philadelphia, 147.

    A point well taken
    Extra points are often taken for granted, but they figure to receive a little extra attention today when the Ravens visit the Giants. If Ravens kicker Matt Stover converts his next PAT, he will set the NFL record for consecutive extra points made, at 372. He is currently tied with Jason Elam (371 from 1993-2002) and Jeff Wilkins (371, 1999-2007).

    Buc stays here?
    Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden responded to speculation that he could be the next coach at the University of Tennessee, saying he has no plans to make a move despite having family ties in the state. "I've said it from the beginning: This is the only job I've really ever wanted," said Gruden. "As long as the Glazers will have me, I'll be here. I've got a lot of respect for Tennessee. I grew up down there a little bit. My wife is from there. But this is where I want to be and I can only make myself that clear." Gruden wouldn't be the first coach to say one thing and do another, but given that his contract runs through 2011 and he's well-received in Tampa, it seems unlikely he'll be anywhere else.

    Fast on his feat
    The next touchdown reception for Chargers tight end Antonio Gates will be the 50th of his career, as he's primed to become the fastest player at his position to reach that milestone, breaking the mark set by Washington's Jerry Smith (100 games). Gates has amassed 49 TDs in 86 games. Only six tight ends in NFL history have hit the 50-TD mark: Smith, Tony Gonzalez (118 games), Dave Casper (127 games), Ben Coates (128 games), Shannon Sharpe (168 games), and Wesley Walls (168 games).

    Another run-through
    The Vikings' special-teams units have tied an NFL record, but it's not the type they're interested in owning. When Packers returner Will Blackmon (a former Boston College standout) scored on a punt return last Sunday, it marked the sixth TD surrendered by the Minnesota special teams this season, which ties them with the 1980 Lions.

    Did you know?
    Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has played against every NFL team but the Eagles, a streak that will remain intact as he misses today's game against Philadelphia with an elbow injury.

    Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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