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Kickers and demons

Dave Rayner

On Thursday in Baltimore, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh welcomed Shayne Graham by calling him "the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history. He's a veteran. He knows how to handle pressure situations."

On Thursday in Cincinnati, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said goodbye to Graham's demons spawned in one of those pressure situations. One named 35-yard wide left and the other 28-yard right. The way Lewis sees it, Graham made his decision to move on because those ghosts are still rattling around Paul Brown Stadium chained to that 24-14 AFC Wild Card loss to the Jets last Jan. 9.

The 35-yarder that went left would have cut the Jets lead to 14-10 with 6:29 left in the third quarter. And the 28-yarder that went right with 3:44 left in the game that would have cut it to 24-17.

Such is the NFL, where second chances, fresh starts and new environments sprout on the waiver wire like ivy. For not only are Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner now officially in a training camp competition for Graham's job in Cincinnati, but the most accurate Bengals kicker of all time finds himself in competition in Baltimore with Billy Cundiff.

And pardon Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who pulled Graham off the waiver wire the week of Lewis' NFL head coaching debut in 2003 in the wake of the injury to Neil Rackers in the preseason finale, if he sees some similarities.

Nugent, who has been with three teams, has made 79 percent of his 100 field-goal tries. Rayner, who has been with five teams, has made 71.2 percent of his 59 tries.

"That sounds like Shayne Graham to me in 2002 and 2003," said Simmons, who coached Graham in Carolina in '02. "That happens with a lot of kickers in this league. They're out on the street and it rekindles that hunger a little bit. Competition brings out the best in everybody. Both of these guys are hungry."

Look at how close the numbers are.

When Graham arrived in '03, he was a 73.1-percent kicker, and he had only tried 26 NFL field goals. Rayner, 27, is back kicking after missing much of the spring with a hip flexor. Nugent, 28, made all six of his field goal tries last week two days after he was 4-for-6. After Thursday's practice, Simmons says he likes the way both guys are hitting the ball. He had just watched them hit a bunch of 20-yard chippies while the line was getting worked on, but he wants to make sure he doesn't overwork them, particularly Rayner.

Rayner has been here before. He was in a competition in Washington last training camp and lost it to a ripped muscle.

"We want to make sure we don't kick him too much that he decreases his ability to compete," Simmons said.

Rayner, for one, was relieved that Graham had finally made the move. The Bengals never really quite officially shut off the Graham option until this week. But after he turned them down early in free agency they didn't exactly embrace him, either.

"It's a little different mindset. Now there's a job to win. You never knew," Rayner said. "With Darrin, he didn't really give us any knowledge of what was going on. Not that he should. It's none of our business."

Simmons tried to talk to Graham as much as he could with texts and calls and figures it was like a regular offseason that way. But it's not like he had any top-secret information. The Bengals and agent David Dunn had an odd mating season for this one. The sense was that both sides felt the other was apathetic about a deal.

They were both right. The Bengals knew they had a fan base and a locker room smarting from the misses. Graham knew it, too.

Lewis hinted Thursday that the offers in the two towns weren't all that far apart.

"He had an opportunity to probably regain what he had here," Lewis said. "Unfortunately for him, he's got the demons of his last kicks here with us. He didn't make them. He's got to overcome those demons and I think that was a lot of it. Whether or not he could come back here in this locker room. That was going to be difficult to overcome those demons. Missing the kicks. Unfortunately that's what the fans remember around here are the kicks that he missed. That's the way that it goes. I wish him good luck

"He had a good opportunity to come back here. The guy that got Shayne going was his coach here (Simmons). He had an opportunity to say, 'Hey look, Coach, I just want to get this done and be a part of the team,' and I don't think that's what he wanted to do. So it worked out the way he wanted it to work out."

When he met with the Ravens media Thursday, Graham didn't deny the chance to return was there.

"I had the opportunity to go back there," he said. "There's really no true motivation or any type of spite. They were very good to me. I love the organization. You move on and you make changes in life. This is where it's brought me, and I'm happy to be here. When I play there, I'll have friends in the stands and across the sidelines. Other than that, every kick is just as important than the next."

Graham knows the Paul Brown Stadium fans are going to get on him.

"I always enjoy that. It'll be different being in a stadium that was home for me so long," he said. "I've always enjoyed that feeling when you walk into a hostile situation where the fans are booing your whole team and you. It'll be a little different when it's a team that used to cheer for me."

Now they may be cheering Nugent or Rayner, guys that Simmons says are refreshingly "hungry."

Graham insisted Thursday in Baltimore that he's hungry, too.

"I don't think I would put so much pressure on it to have to prove anything, but that is motivation for myself that I know I'm better than that," he told the media. "Even the best have bad days. That's what I feel has made me better over my career, is when I've had things not go my way, I never folded and just walked away from it. I kind of came back and kept trying and kept fighting. Really, that's what I've based everything on.

"I've been cut several times before I ever played for Cincinnati, and it's all those times that you feel like things are hard that you kind of appreciate what you have a little bit more, and you want to fight for it a little harder. I think that's something that will give me an edge when I come into camp here. I feel like I'm not proving anything, but I'm fighting for something and I'm hungry."

In this all-you-can-eat buffet of kickers, Nugent is the intriguing local guy out of Centerville, Ohio, and Ohio State, a second-round draft pick of the Jets in 2005 who drilled 81 percent of his tries during three seasons before he got hurt. And, yes, he's hit all three of his playoff tries.

Even one from 28.

But he could only get eight attempts and four made last year with two clubs. The big question for him is his kickoffs. He doesn't think his high draft pick has given him problems. He could only get eight attempts and four made last year with two clubs.

"You have to realize that it wasn't you that picked you in the second round," Nugent said. "All you could do was put yourself in that position to get drafted that high and I was lucky enough to get picked."

If it sounds like Nugent has a clue, he does. Even though he knew he and Rayner could get cut if Graham came back to the table Tuesday, he sounds like a guy who lost his job in 2008 because of injury.

"I've started to learn you just can't worry about things that are beyond your control," Nugent said. "I think that messes with guys' minds. You might let that affect you. I was thinking I have an opportunity to win this job. That's the only thing I was focused on. I knew it would be a possibility Shayne could re-sign, but I (was thinking) how can I make the ball go straighter?"

Simmons has been working on Nugent with minor mechanics ("We're not reinventing the wheel," Nugent said), such as his stance and "the way I'm coming through it and try to get straighter through than wrapping around it."

Rayner, out of Michigan State, says he and Nugent are good friends. They both came out of the Big Ten in 2005. They both are Midwest guys. The newlywed Rayner is from Detroit, just four hours away, and would love to get a job so close to home.

"The first part is just getting the opportunity," Rayner said. "It has to be the right spot and things need to fall into place. Everyone has a spot. Hopefully this is my spot."

It does not appear to be a spot for demons.

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