K Martin Gramatica's fine rookie season helped the Bucs excel on special teams
If you examine the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' disparate offensive and defensive rankings in 1999 and conclude that this was a team carried by its defense, you're forgetting that there's a third number to the equation. The Buccaneers also excelled on special teams this past season, an important factor in the team's franchise-record 11-5 regular-season record.
Special teams played a significant role in several of the Bucs' 1999 victories, and not just in the obvious ways. Clearly, rookie K Martin Gramatica's four field goals, including a clutch 53-yarder in the last minute, were the key plays in the team's comeback 19-10 win over Atlanta on November 21. Less conspicuous, however, was the effort by Shelton Quarles in Tampa Bay's 24-17 win over Minnesota on Monday Night Football on December 6. Quarles made five special teams tackles, helping the Bucs post a nearly 40-yard net punting average, and also recovered a fumbled punt to set up a Tampa Bay score. In a game in which the Bucs faced such a high-powered offense, the game of field position was crucial and Quarles helped the Bucs win it.
The problem is, that type of contribution is more difficult to quantify than are the offensive and defensive rankings, which are based on yards. The term 'special teams' encompasses a team's punting and placekicking efforts and its defense against those same units on the opposing teams. There are generally 25-30 special teams plays per game, and how well a team is able to convert on its field goals has little or no effect on how well it covers kickoffs.
Still, it is possible to rank the teams in a variety of special teams categories, than combine those rankings for a fairly comprehensive view of how effective each team's kicking units are. The Buccaneers have referred to such rankings for the last four seasons, ever since Head Coach Tony Dungy was hired and brought on former New Orleans coach Joe Marciano to direct the Bucs' special teams. In that span, Tampa Bay has consistently ranked as one of the better clubs on special teams, and 1999 was no exception.
In a recently-completed ranking system that takes into account 17 different special teams categories, the Buccaneers ranked seventh in the NFL in 1999. The team ranked fifth in 1996 in Marciano's first season, then dipped to 14th in each of the past two years before climbing again last season, largely due to the additions of Gramatica and veteran punter Mark Royals.
Tampa Bay, Dallas and Jacksonville are the only NFL teams that have ranked in the top half of the league in this combined special teams ranking for each of the last four years. The categories used to determine this ranking include kickoff and punt return averages, field goal and extra point percentages, special teams touchdowns, blocked punts, net and gross punting averages and average kickoff drive starts. Minnesota led the way in this ranking in 1999, followed by Seattle, Carolina, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the Bucs. All but Pittsburgh finished with a .500 record or better.
Under Marciano, the Buccaneers have been remarkably consistent, with a couple of areas of extreme excellence. Marciano's charges have been outstanding at containing opposing kickoff returners, ranking in the top seven in average opponent kickoff drive start each of his four Buc seasons. The Bucs allowed just 17.6 yards per kickoff return during the regular season in 1999, second-best in the league, and never gave up a runback longer than 36 yards.
The Buccaneers were also sixth in net punting in '99 thanks to the strong leg of Royals, who broke the team's record for gross punting average with a mark of 43.1 and just missed the Buc standard for net punting average with a mark of 37.4. Meanwhile, a kicking game that finished 21st in the NFL in field goal percentage in 1998 and 23rd in extra point percentage saw the immediate benefits of Gramatica's addition, ranking ninth and tied for first in those two categories, respectively, this past year. Gramatica was determined to post a strong first season to justify his unusually high draft position (third round); all he did was nail 27 of 32 field goal tries and all 25 of his PATs.
Not only did Dungy clearly hire the right man to lead the special teams in 1996, he has allowed the Bucs to keep players largely due to their special teams prowess. An unknown Canadian Football League alum in 1997, Quarles has developed into the team's starting strongside linebacker, but he first carved out his spot on the roster as the Bucs' leading tackler for three straight seasons.
Rookie DE John McLaughlin played only a few snaps on defense for Tampa Bay in 1999 but was still considered an important player on the roster due to his unusual combination of size and speed. That proved to be a lethal combination on special teams, where he was often used as the outside 'gunner' on punt coverage, an exceedingly unusual spot for a 260-pound defensive end. LB Don Davis was claimed by the Buccaneers off waivers late in 1998 from New Orleans and has not played a down on defense. However, he finished second on the team in special teams tackles last year with 21 and notched a blocked punt in just his fifth game as a Buc last season. LB Jeff Gooch rang up 19 tackles and a forced fumble in 1999, including four stops in a single game.
This combined ranking can give a strong impression of which NFL teams have helped themselves the most on special teams, but it isn't an official league statistic and it doesn't cover up every weakness. The Buccaneers, for instance, might have finished higher in the rankings if they had gotten more production on kickoff returns, where they finished 30th in 1999. It is, nevertheless, a valuable tool, and it puts a specific number on an impression that many Tampa Bay fans may have already felt: the Bucs' emphasis on the kicking game has paid off.