K Martin Gramatica made all eight of his placekicks on Sunday against the Saints, but might miss next Saturday's game due to a hamstring strain
It was just about the only blemish on a near-perfect Sunday afternoon for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the sight of kicker Martin Gramatica slapping the back of his right leg in obvious frustration after a fourth-quarter extra point.
Gramatica was clearly injured on the play - a right hamstring strain, as it turns out. Head Coach Tony Dungy's usual reaction to the loss of a key player is, the next man in line has to step up. Unfortunately, that logic doesn't apply in Gramatica's case. The slot following Gramatica's name on the depth chart is empty, as evidenced by safety John Lynch's two valiant attempts to handle kickoffs later in the quarter.
That means a busy Monday for the Buccaneers' player personnel department.
On Monday afternoon, Dungy confirmed that Gramatica's hamstring strain is serious enough to warrant at least a preliminary search for other options, though perhaps not as bad as some suspected it could be Sunday night.
"It's a hamstring strain," said Dungy, emphasizing that last word to distinguish it from a tear. "It's probably not as serious as we feared yesterday, but there is a chance it could keep him out this week. The thing we're going to do is rest him early in the week and see what happens. But we will, at some point, work out some kickers and give ourselves a backup plan."
The Bucs' evaluation period is shortened by a day, thanks to a schedule that has them playing on Saturday evening against the Baltimore Ravens. Tampa Bay players have Monday and Tuesday (Christmas) off, then return for the usual practice schedule on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The Bucs could wait until that last day to make a decision on whether to sign another kicker or not, and probably would take advantage of the interim to work out free agent candidates and get a feel for Gramatica's recovery.
"I think we'd have to do it (by) Friday evening," said Dungy of signing a new kicker. "That will give us some time to really see and give him some rehabilitation time. We'll see what happens by Thursday."
While delaying the decision, Dungy did not downplay the seriousness of the situation. Though the Bucs were able to coast to the end of a blowout win over New Orleans without a kicker, there is little chance that will be possible on Saturday against Baltimore. The Bucs would love to have Gramatica, the reigning NFC Pro Bowl kicker, around to provide long-range points against the Ravens' stingy defense. If that's not an option, they must choose wisely among the free agents available.
"You've got to have a guy to make field goals," said Dungy. "That's one of the things we've noticed with Baltimore. I don't know why, but kickers against them have missed almost half their kicks. They play a lot of tight games and they've won them. They beat Pittsburgh when the guy missed four field goals. It is probably going to be critical that you can make field goals in this game."
Most teams have at least two kickers in training camp every year, so there should be fresh film on several dozen possibilities that are currently not employed by one of the league's 31 clubs. The Bucs' pro personnel staffers began compiling a list Sunday night and, if tryouts are deemed necessary, would probably conduct them on Wednesday. Considering the gravity of the Bucs' next two games and the looming playoffs, one might expect the team to go in search of battle-tested veterans, but Dungy did not concede on Monday that the search was narrowed in that fashion.
"Not necessarily," he said. "We'll just look for the best guy who's out there. I don't know who those guys are right now and who's available, but our staff is checking on it and we'll come up with a good player, I'm sure. Somebody that can make field goals, hopefully."
Tampa Bay suffered no other major injuries on Sunday, just an assortment of 'bumps and bruises,' but the Bucs' training staff worked into the late afternoon on Christmas Eve on the players that needed attention. Trainers seconded Dungy's notion that Gramatica's injury wasn't as bad as originally feared and guessed that, if he misses time, it would not be more than one week.
Gramatica has actually been bothered by a gimpy hamstring in his right leg for several weeks and had felt it take a turn for the worse earlier in the game, after kicking off following his 27-yard field goal in the third quarter.
"I think (he got it by) overuse and overwork, just like a runner or track guy," said Dungy. "You're practicing, you're working out and all of a sudden you pull one. He's been sore, and he told us before that he didn't think he could kick off but he thought he could kick a short field goal. Had we known it was that bad, we probably would have gone for two at that point (after Dave Moore's touchdown catch)."
Gramatica made four field goals and four extra points on Sunday before leaving, setting a team record for kickers with 16 total points. The previous mark was 14, shared by three kickers on four occasions (Steve Christie twice in 1990, Donald Igwebuike once in 1989 and Bill Capece once in the 1982 season).
On the season, he has hit on 23 of 29 field goals and all 28 extra point tries, giving him a total of 97 points. If he is unable to play in either of the last two games, Gramatica will miss a chance to break the 100-point mark for the third time in three NFL seasons. Before Gramatica was drafted in the third round in 1999, no Tampa Bay player had ever reached triple digits in single-season scoring, but the former Kansas State star racked up 106 points as a rookie and 126 last year. He was chosen to his first Pro Bowl last fall after nailing 28 of 34 kicks, including five of 50 or more yards.