OWINGS MILLS, Md. — While his teammates practiced on the secluded fields behind the Ravens’ castle-like headquarters, Justin Tucker got in his reps 22 miles away at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. The first preseason game was on the horizon, and the kicker wanted to practice in game-like conditions. Tucker had a ridiculously automatic 2016 season, putting together one of the most efficient seasons at any position. Tucker went 38-for-39, with a blocked field goal as his only miss. He also tied the NFL single-season record by connecting on 10 field goals from 50 yards or more. After he returned from his stadium reps after a recent training camp practice, Tucker, still buzzing with energy, sat down to talk to The MMQB about his plans for 2016, finding inspiration from Morten Andersen and his passion for singing opera.
KALYN KAHLER: You had one of the best seasons for a kicker last year. How will you top that this season?
JUSTIN TUCKER: In years past I have always made it a point to say to myself, or when somebody asks me publicly, that I want to make all of my kicks. I think more practically, I want to just kick the ball well and I want to win games. There is a lot of stuff that happens in between the lines that not a lot of people know about, like what happens out here on the practice field, what happens in my own film study, what [longsnapper] Morgan [Cox], [punter/holder] Sam [Koch] I are all able to do collectively, both on and off the field—it all contributes to the ball coming off my foot well. I think that is what my primary focus is, continuing to hit the ball well.
KAHLER: Do you have a favorite from last season?
TUCKER: If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the 52-yarder into the wind, when we were playing Cincinnati at home. As we were lining it up, I was telling Sam, it was in the middle of the game, so we know that there is a lot of football left to be played on this particular Sunday, but as I am lining it up with Sam, we're looking at our target line and picking out a spot and I say to him, kind of halfheartedly, When we make this, this will be legendary. It's just the middle of the game, and we knocked the kick down. It was probably the toughest kick that I've made in a game. The feeling of watching the ball split the uprights, I felt like the ball could have gone forever—but then I see that it barely got there! It's a good feeling.
KAHLER: You have to work in perfect synchronization with your snapper and holder. How does that affect your relationship and friendship with Cox and Koch, whom you call your Wolfpack?
TUCKER: First thing I’ve got to do: I have to give them credit for how good they are at what they do. Morgan is an excellent snapper. Sam is an excellent punter and holder. It's due to a combination of talent and incredibly hard work. They make my job significantly easier. At the same time, off the field, we all get along great. Morgan and Sam are both good friends and I think that makes what we do on the field, when we are successful, it makes it that much sweeter. When there are tough times, we are all able to pick each other up in a way that might be unique. We definitely hang out outside of practice, we all know each other's families, and we're all supportive of everything that everybody's got going on. I would certainly consider Morgan and Sam two of my best friends. It's a unique friendship in that we have fortified our relationship through the trials and tribulations that come with playing pro football together. We all know exactly what we are going through at any given time. There's an understanding there that nobody else really has, and I think that has certainly contributed to how close we all are off the field.
KAHLER: Do you have any rituals that the three of you do before you go out for an attempt?
TUCKER: No, we don't have any rituals or quirks. I do on my own. Before games, I lay out my uniform in the shape of a man on the floor, and it's my own little—I don't want to call it a superstition—but it's just my ritual.
KAHLER: Do you say anything to yourself or do anything on the field before every kick?
TUCKER: Yeah, I don't want to give away trade secrets, but I am happy to share that I acknowledge the moment with a quick prayer and I make the sign of the cross on myself as I am lining up to kick. More than anything, to show gratitude for the opportunity and the moment, because as anybody who has played professional football, they know that these moments can be fleeting and I'm certainly blessed to be able to do what I do for a living and I would like to share that idea with whoever is watching. If somebody gets something positive from that, then that is great.
KAHLER: Kicking is a mentally stressful position. Have you ever sought out help from a sports psychologist?
TUCKER: In a game where one-on-one battles frequently determine the outcome of a game, or even more specifically, a play in a game. My one-on-one battle is me vs. myself. I never really think about it as a battle, I just think about being the best me that I can be, and that is a lot easier to do when I have Morgan and Sam right there and I know that I don't even have to think twice about where the ball is going to be once it leaves Morgan's hands and Sam puts it down. I know it is going to be there. It's just about being the best me that I can be. I've never sought out a sports psychologist to help me hone my craft. It's something that I just haven't needed.
KAHLER: You're a big advocate for the kickers are people too movement, and you recently tweeted that you voted for all kickers this year for the NFL’s top 100 rankings. Can you share your list?
TUCKER: I can't share the exact order because that wouldn't be fair to everybody but I basically just filled out- they give you a list with like 20 blanks and I just filled out ten of them. I wrote down all of the kickers that I could think of off the top of my head. I will say though that there are guys that I will pick and choose different parts of their technique and I will try to make it my own, and I certainly have some respect for everybody out there and what they are doing and their preparation, because at the end of the day, we're all playing a game. I want him to do well. If they happen to be playing us and the game comes down to a kick, I don't know, that's a tricky one, but I still want to see all those guys doing well and I would think they feel the same about me.
KAHLER: Von Miller had a pass rush summit at Stanford this offseason, where he invited some of the league’s best pass rushers to learn from each other. Have you ever thought about doing something like that with kickers across the league? Would that be helpful to get together and talk about this really unique skill?
TUCKER: Yeah, it might be. I don't know, I think I prefer to keep my cards close to the chest. I will say, I'll bounce ideas off of one or two other guys, there are a lot of different ways to kick a ball and I think only a handful of guys are really doing it consistently well.
KAHLER: I recently did a story on Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who said that he struggles with the monotony of being a kicker. Do you ever struggle with the routine and repetition of kicking?
TUCKER: If every ball is the same and it gets to a point where it is monotonous, then that is probably a really good thing. That makes sense coming from Stephen because he is one of the best kickers to ever play, so yeah when it gets boring, it's probably a good thing. I think the head coach would agree. Being bored during field goal period, knowing that everything is going to get made, is a good feeling.
KAHLER: How did fellow kicker Morten Andersen's induction into the Hall of Fame make you feel? Were you inspired by it?
TUCKER: I love it. I think he was deserving from the get-go. You talk about a game where you win by scoring more points than your opponent, right? And the leading scorer in the history of the game played 25 seasons? That's a no brainer, you should be in the Hall of Fame . . . I want to say he converted 22 game-winning field goals. So, over an entire regular season worth of wins he is responsible for. That's really cool. I don't think that many people could say anything even close to that, regardless of their position.
KAHLER: Do you think you could play that long?
TUCKER: I just try to take it one kick at a time, and put one foot in front of another and make kicks. That's another reason why he should be in. To play for as long as he did at such a high level, it's remarkable.
KAHLER: You're classically trained in opera. Do you listen to a lot of opera? What type of music do you listen to?
TUCKER: I listen to a whole bunch of different types of music. I get on a kick where I'll listen to like, late ’90s, early 2000s, post-grunge Seattle rock. For awhile I was just obsessed with Third Eye Blind, Chili Peppers, Incubus, that whole kind of range of music—and recently I've been listening to a lot of ’80s hair rock, like Scorpions, Poison, Cru, Guns N’ Roses. I'll throw in a little Outfield. I'll listen to just about anything and try to enjoy it.
KAHLER: Do you ever sing for your teammates?
TUCKER: Yeah I got up in one of the team meetings recently and I sang a song for everybody to provide a little entertainment, camp can be long.
KAHLER: What did you sing?
TUCKER: Well, it was in a team meeting so I can't divulge that. But it was good to get a laugh and a couple smiles from the guys.
KAHLER: You've never missed an extra point in your career, so clearly the increased distance for the PAT didn't affect your results. But was it an adjustment? Is it still an adjustment?
TUCKER: There certainly is an added component there when you just back it up 13 yards from what it was, but more than anything, I just treat it like another field goal attempt. Whereas, in the past, I would certainly treat a 20-yard PAT like another field goal attempt, but you kind of know in the back of your mind that you have a little bit more room for error. Whereas, on a 33-yard PAT, if that angle changes from the point of contact one or two degrees outside of where you could have erred on a 20-yard PAT, that ball might hit the upright or it might miss. It does make you lock in just a little bit extra.
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