Green Bay's Kevin Stemke left 'dumbfounded' by the Rams' decision to cut him this week

By Todd McMahon
Another NFL off-season. Unfortunately for Kevin Stemke, yet another period of downtime consumed by an uncertain future.

Stemke, a Green Bay native and former standout at Preble High School and the University of Wisconsin, is back on the all-too-familiar market seeking employment as a professional punter.

The St. Louis Rams cut Stemke this week, which came as a "huge shock" to the 26-year-old and those close to him, agent Chris Murray said Tuesday night.

"We're as dumbfounded as anybody," Murray said.

According to Murray, Stemke learned of his impending release Friday while on the golf course with former Wisconsin kicker Vitaly Pisetsky, who was married the next day. Stemke took a call on his cell phone from first-year special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, who informed Stemke that the team had decided to part ways with their incumbent left-footed punter.

Stemke handled the chores the last month and a half of the 2004 season, after replacing deposed veteran Sean Landeta. Stemke averaged 39.8 yards in 28 punts during his most extensive in-season NFL stint in four years.

The Rams apparently are content to ride the right leg of rookie Reggie Hodges into the summer and possibly into next season. Hodges, a Ball State product, was taken in the sixth round of the draft last month. For now, he's the only punter on the Rams roster.

"We actually didn't think much of (the addition of Hodges) because Kevin has been punting (in the off-season) as well as he has his entire life," Murray said.

Figuring the selection of Hodges was intended to stir up competition for the job the next few months, Stemke never saw the walking papers coming.

"It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Murray, who pressed Rams officials for an explanation last weekend.

He gathered from those conversations that the decision to get rid of Stemke was rendered unilaterally by head coach Mike Martz, who is on his fourth special teams coach in six years.

"Kevin had a good rapport with the new special teams coach. (The release) just doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Murray said. "It's the biggest hammer that's been thrown down with one of my clients."

Murray said Stemke was in St. Louis on Tuesday meeting with Ligashesky. Attempts to reach Stemke, who cleared waivers Tuesday, were unsuccessful.

"His (initial) reaction was, 'I'm done with the NFL,'" related Murray, "but that was off the cuff. He has no intention of giving up on playing in the NFL."

To that end, Murray is optimistic Stemke will attract interest from other teams in the coming weeks. Even though no player accepts being cut well, Murray said it should work to Stemke's advantage that he's on the free-agent market ahead of the post-June 1 cuts.

Murray has yet to have any contact with the Packers, whose punting situation is unsettled. Murray, however, indicated it's unlikely a homecoming would mark the next stop on Stemke's nomadic journey through the NFL.

Since trying to break into the 32-team league as an undrafted rookie with the Packers in 2001, Stemke has been with five teams. He was with the Rams on two occasions.

Stemke, the inaugural Ray Guy Award winner as college football's best punter with Wisconsin in 2000, lost out to Josh Bidwell in the punting battle during the Packers' 2001 training camp.

A year later, Stemke, after being cut by the Rams in the preseason, hooked on with Oakland. He appeared in two regular-season games in place of an injured Shane Lechler, averaging 42.4 yards in five attempts.

Stemke then was with Miami during the 2003 preseason and with Washington in the preseason last year. The Redskins cut Stemke, even though he was ranked among the league's top 10 punters for the exhibition slate, because they had veteran Tom Tupa.

In turn, the Packers declined to take another look at Stemke, despite rookie B.J. Sander's finishing the preseason rated last in the league for both gross average and net average.

The Packers had invested a third-round draft pick in Sander, the 2003 Ray Guy Award winner at Ohio State. They kept him on the 53-man roster the entire season as the non-active second punter behind veteran Bryan Barker.

With Barker not re-signed in the off-season, the Packers are targeting Sander to assume the duties next season. However, Sander, who's kicking in NFL Europe this spring, will have competition in training camp from first-year player Brooks Barnard and undrafted rookie Bryce Benekos, if not a veteran free agent.

"Knowing the level of patience they've had with B.J. Sander, I think they fully intend to give him every shot to win the job," Murray said.

Meanwhile, Stemke, a three-time all-state selection in high school, will have to again exercise patience as he awaits his next shot to punt somewhere in a league that hasn't always been kind to him