No second chance for Evans, Cundiff
The city of Baltimore seemed like the last logical place for Lee Evans to hide. Maybe that's the greatest takeaway from the past year, that Evans never felt the need to go anywhere. He still lives in his home in Baltimore, and he keeps a photo of the dreaded play on a wall. His son, Lee Evans IV, is the one who put it there. The kid has no idea what the photo means. He's 4, and he saw it on a desk one day, saw the photo of Daddy playing football, so he pinned it to his wall. Someday, Evans will tell his son the story of how he got there, to the worst moment of his football career, to the best team he's ever played on.
"It's weird that I'm still living here in Baltimore," Evans says. "It's not like I'm from here or anything like that. It's just kind of how this all worked out."
Here's the thing you need to know about Lee Evans: He's fine. One year after a potential winning touchdown catch was slapped out of his hands in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship Game, Evans sat in front of a television in his house last weekend, hoping for the second chance he never got. A few minutes earlier, Baltimore's Jacoby Jones had dropped a third-and-5 pass in a playoff game at Denver. The Ravens trailed by seven and were running out of time in the frigid mountain air. Joe Flacco heaved up a 70-yard prayer, and Jones wrapped his arms around it and found the end zone.
And Evans nearly jumped out of his seat.
Sometimes, in the postseason, you get only one shot. Evans didn't know then, after the ball fell to the ground in New England, that it could be the last pass ever thrown to him. He hustled back to the huddle after that play, with 22 seconds to go, waiting to redeem himself. Move on to the next play, he thought. That's what you're taught in football. Eleven seconds later, Billy Cundiff's potential tying 32-yard field goal attempt sailed wide, the Ravens were sent home and Evans could barely move. He couldn't believe it was over.
He was cut in March and sat out the 2012 season; Cundiff was released at the end of training camp, bounced around to Washington, then to San Francisco, and is battling to make the 49ers' active roster. He desperately wants to kick in the postseason again.
Sunday night, the Ravens will get a second chance. They'll go back to New England in an AFC Championship Game rematch for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Evans, for his part, is as over it as he can be. His former teammates made an impossible night somewhat easier when they refused to point fingers. They won as a team and they lost as a team, they told him. Some people say those things to the cameras but don't really mean them, Evans says. He knows every man in that locker room believed that.
Today, he can walk by that photo without feeling sad or embarrassed. He doesn't know how he'll feel Sunday, when his old team stands on the FieldTurf where Cundiff's kick flailed wide left and Evans' dreams were swatted away.
"I do think about it," Evans says. "I don't think about it in a negative way, though. Right after the play, I went to the [PR] guy and basically asked him to get me a picture of it. Give me a picture of that moment, so I have it. I wanted it as a constant reminder to keep pushing, to keep going.
"I look at that picture, and basically I ask myself, 'Do I want another opportunity to do that again?'"
The Baltimore Ravens' locker room is sort of an anomaly in a league full of constantly changing faces. Boys don't just grow into men here; they become graying fixtures who spend their entire careers wearing the black and purple.
When Evans arrived in the spring of 2012, the low-key receiver felt out of place, as if he had just stepped in on a conversation that had started five years ago. But it didn't last for long. Coach John Harbaugh, who is called "Harbs" by his players, fosters a culture of brotherhood and accountability. His teams are tight, his leaders are strong, and everyone quickly took Evans in as family.
Evans, 31, a 2004 first-round draft pick from the University of Wisconsin, was expected to do big things in Baltimore. In seven years as a Buffalo Bill, he had amassed nearly 6,000 receiving yards. Evans had adulation, money and gaudy stats in Buffalo, but never had a chance to play in the postseason, and it nagged at him. He would watch the playoffs on TV and wonder what it was like to be called upon in the final seconds of a game that meant everything. In Baltimore, he would get that chance -- the Ravens have been in the playoffs nine times since 2000 -- but Evans was never the same receiver he was in Buffalo.
An ankle injury limited his playing time and production. Evans sat out seven games in 2011, and every week he was out, a small army of reporters gathered around his locker, quizzing him about when he would be back. It was frustrating for Evans, who wanted to help his new team. Eventually, he stopped answering the questions. He caught just four passes for 74 yards in the regular season. But when the playoffs rolled around, Evans felt ready and healed. He was not intimidated by the atmosphere in Foxborough on the night of Jan. 22; he had played there many times back in his days in Buffalo.
For more than three quarters, Evans showed the promise that brought him to Baltimore. He caught a 20-yard pass from Flacco and made two other catches.
The Ravens trailed 23-20 with 22 seconds to go when Flacco found Evans in the corner of the end zone. Evans had it for a second or so, for what seemed both an eternity and a flash, before Sterling Moore stripped the ball out of Evans' hands.
After the game, Evans stood in front of the cameras and took full responsibility.
"It was an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," he said, "and I let it go."
As the team was boarding the bus, he tried to find Ray Lewis, the linebacker who has been in Baltimore his entire 17-year career. Evans knew that Lewis might never get this chance again, and he felt terrible about it. He tried to apologize, only Lewis wouldn't let him. He told Evans about his journey through the NFL, the Super Bowl he won many years ago, the struggles he has faced since. He told Evans that sometimes, things aren't meant to be.
"It's all about the journey," Evans said. "It's all about the path to get there. Obviously, it takes you to places sometimes you don't expect to be.
"Ray felt like what we had there was something real, and if it's supposed to be, it's going to happen. He felt that this team is built to be a champion. He had a real sense and a real tangible attitude that they were going to be right back where we were next year with the same opportunity."
Billy Cundiff is 32 now, but the stress of the NFL has caused nary a crease on his baby face. Cundiff grew up in Harlan, a friendly southwestern Iowa town of 5,000 that churns out state championships, and football has taken him everywhere. Cundiff has played for 11 teams in the NFL. He lockered near Brett Favre in the veteran quarterback's final days in Green Bay and lived through four years of drama in Dallas.
After years of moving vans and locker cleanings, Cundiff, who is married and has two young kids, appeared to finally set down roots in Baltimore. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010 and signed a five-year, $15 million contract on Jan. 23, 2011. But a kicker's life is never really stable. Three hundred and sixty four days after his new deal, Cundiff missed the game-tying kick against the Patriots, and in May, the Ravens signed Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie from the University of Texas, to compete with him in training camp. Tucker won the job, and, on Aug. 26, the Ravens released Cundiff.
The Washington Redskins picked him up two days later, but Cundiff struggled and was released in October. He had seven workouts with various teams before signing with the 49ers two weeks ago. He was called in as a possible Plan B after David Akers battled through one of the worst seasons in his 15-year career. Cundiff was somewhere in the Bay Area this past weekend when Tucker calmly drilled a 47-yarder that sealed the Ravens' 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos in double overtime.
Cundiff declined an interview request for this story, saying he just wants to concentrate on this week. Earlier this month, he told reporters in San Francisco that, during his time away from the league, he wrote the regular-season schedule on a whiteboard in his garage, waiting for his next opportunity.
He didn't dress for Saturday's victory over the Green Bay Packers, as the 49ers went with Akers. A time zone away, Cundiff's former teammates celebrated in a rowdy locker room in Denver. Punter Sam Koch, who was the holder for Tucker's game winner and for Cundiff's last miss in a Ravens uniform, said that he still talks to his old friend and that they put that game behind them a long time ago. That's their job, Koch said. It's always about the next kick. It's about moving on.
But so much of this team's motivation was forged on that January day last year. Center Matt Birk remembers the confetti hitting him like daggers.
"It was as disappointing as it could be," Birk said. "But I remember saying last year after the game was over that we could've played better, obviously. But we couldn't play any harder. At the end of the day, that's all you can do.
"You're always one play away from your career being over. You never know when you're on teams like this and you get deep into the playoffs. You never know when it's going to be your last turn, your last time. You appreciate the opportunity, but you also do everything you can to take advantage of it."
Evans was cut for the first time in his NFL career. It was a Friday in early March. He was called into the Ravens' offices and had a sit-down with John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome. Evans appreciated that they did it face to face. He had heard of many other situations in which players on other teams found out by phone or even in the newspaper.
But that's the way the Ravens are, Evans said. They're a family. Evans went to Newsome months earlier, after the play, and asked him how to deal with the crushing disappointment, and Newsome told him about how his old Cleveland Browns teammate, Earnest Byner, dealt with "The Fumble" in one of their postseason defeats.
"He was just saying how it's natural to hurt after it," Evans said. "But understand that's how you learn from it."
Evans signed with Jacksonville in April 2012, but he was nowhere near his old form and was released before the season. He wants to play again but knows his ankle and body might not cooperate. He'll play again if he knows he can compete at the highest level. He'll play again if he can contribute to something special like they had in Baltimore.
If he can't, Evans can live with the fact that, the last time he touched the ball, he couldn't hold on. Time does that. It makes things tolerable.
"Last year put a lot of things in perspective for me, being around all those guys and seeing the way that organization is and what they believe," Evans said. "It was a tremendous challenge for me, mentally and physically, and I think I've been able to grow a ton. I wouldn't change that for anything."
He is happy for the Ravens, and for a city that never made things worse for him. Maybe the fans took cues from the team. Evans is building a house in Virginia, and eventually he'll move his family there and take everything with him -- the memories, the pictures.
He said the photo in his son's room represents humility. Someday, he'll teach the kid that.