OWING MILLS, Md. -- Justin Tucker's level of greatness can be measured by how everyone believed the Baltimore Ravens' kicker was going to make a game-winning 49-yard field goal in the driving rain last Sunday.
“He’s the G.O.A.T. He’s got that golden leg,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said after the 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. "I’m on the sideline praying, at the same time, I’m like, ‘I know Tuck can do it.’”
Where does Tucker put his faith? It’s in The Wolfpack, a nickname Tucker plucked from the movie “The Hangover” to describe the Ravens’ trio of long-snapper Morgan Cox, holder Sam Koch and Tucker. It’s also in the most precise 1.3 seconds in the history of the game.
"Within those 1.3 seconds, it’s as simple as Morgan throwing the ball back there, Sam putting it down and me kicking it,” Tucker said. "We’re at a point where we have essentially the luxury to think about it like that because we have put in the tireless detail-oriented work into our operation for 7 1/2 years now.”
At a time when the rest of the NFL is struggling to get the field goal operation down to a science, the Ravens have taken it to a nuclear physics level.
Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, making 90.6% of his field goals. To put it in perspective, Jacksonville’s Josh Lambo, who is second all-time, would have to convert his next 40 kicks to reach Tucker’s current success rate.
Every team can get the ball snapped and kicked within that blink of an eye. What separates Baltimore is the accountability, the extensive support staff, the attention to detail and the familiarity.
Cox knows the number of rotations that it takes for the ball to leave his hands and hit Koch’s fingers on his right hand with the laces. Koch knows the most efficient way to catch the ball, place it on the ground and lean it at the exact angle that Tucker wants. And Tucker knows to move his left toe a couple inches closer to where the ball will be spotted to adjust to the slickness of the turf.
"Their job specifically is to be perfect,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. "It has to be right. ... Because if it's not right, they tend to miss field goals, and then when it's not right here, you'll see Justin and he'll be upset.”
This pursuit for perfection goes beyond the Wolfpack. From Wednesday to Saturday, the Ravens’ specialists go to a field where they will kick 75 times and they’re not alone.
There are three special teams coaches (Hornton and assistants Randy Brown and T.J. Weist) and a camera man there to watch, time and chronicle every snap, hold and kick. There are three firefighters, who serve as part-time staff members and help shag footballs to make sure practice moves as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Tucker, Koch and Cox are all over each other if one makes a mistake, but that level of accountability is heightened when they practice with the rest of the team. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who was the Philadelphia Eagles special-teams coach for a decade, has set a high standard in that area.
The on-field operation begins with a target once the field goal team lines up on the field and Koch takes a knee eight yards behind the line of scrimmage. Tucker selects a fixture on the stadium between the uprights and that’s now the bull’s-eye. He then yells it to Koch, so he has an idea where to point the laces.
Hit right edge of the letter T [in the M&T Bank Stadium sign)
Bottom right edge of the staircase in the right third of the uprights
Tucker uses his right foot to mark a spot for Koch, who puts his left index finger there so Tucker can set his sights on where the ball will be placed. When Tucker nods, Koch places his right hand up to cue Cox to snap the ball.
Cox, who joined Baltimore as an undrafted rookie in 2010 and has played in the ninth-most games (146) in franchise history, fires the ball back and wants it to rotate 3 1/4 times. That’s what it takes to hit Koch’s hands perfectly with what they call 12 o’clock laces (the laces point perfectly vertical).
How does Cox know it takes this many spins? He’s counted while watching his snaps in slow motion.
"I know the success rate of Justin is exponentially higher with laces forward,” Cox said. "If I can do my job properly every time, it’s my belief that Justin will never miss a kick.”
Koch, a Pro Bowl punter, estimated that Cox delivers the snap with 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock laces 95% of the time, which is critical. The less Koch has to spin the ball to get the laces out, the easier it is for Tucker to strike a stationary ball.
The other challenge for Koch is setting the ball down in the spot, which is the size of a dime. If he places the ball outside of that, it will throw off Tucker’s stroke.
Once Koch puts the ball down, he makes sure it has the exact lean that Tucker wants by using two fingers on top of it.
"The reason we do two is if we get it down, we have more control and yet we’re able to spin it a quarter of a turn each way,” Koch said.
Tucker takes three steps before crushing the kick through the uprights at a rate that’s astounding when compared to his peers.
The NFL field-goal success rate this season is 79.9%, which is a steep drop from last season’s 84.7% conversion rate. Tucker, meanwhile, has more game-winners (two) this season than missed kicks (one).
In his eight-year career, Tucker has missed 27 field goals, and 16 of them have come from 50 yards or longer and five of them were blocked.
"They’re mad sometimes when they split the uprights, because they know what wasn’t exactly right that they need to do better,” Harbaugh said. "That’s what I appreciate about them. It’s just a relentless attention to detail in what they do.”
Since 2016, Tucker has made all seven lead-changing field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, which is 25% above expectation, according to Next Gen Stats. While others express no fear when Tucker lines up for the pressure kick, he does feel the weight of the moment.
In his typical offbeat way, Tucker will break the tension by saying something random like “Babies and memories," a quote from the TV show, “Friday Night Lights."
Tucker’s latest game-winner had a 61.1% make probability, the third-most improbable field goal by Tucker this season, according to Next Gen. Teammates celebrated by lifting Tucker in the air, but this was a moment created by the Wolfpack.
Tucker, Koch and Cox have been together for eight years, and only the Rams' specialists (kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and long-snapper Jake McQuaide) have been a tandem longer. This longevity will be remembered by their series of split-second successes.
"Hopefully, we’ll keep it going one kick at a time," Koch said.