Through the first 19 quarters and 12 minutes of his NFL career, Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo had misfired on four of seven field goals and one of nine extra point tries. Fortunately, at that point, there were still three minutes left in the NFL's Week Five schedule.
The Buccaneers beat the Carolina Panthers, 17-14, on Monday Night Football on October 10 when Aguayo drilled a 38-yard field goal down the middle as time expired. That result sent the Bucs into their bye week happy and may have been the turning point for the rookie kicker.
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On Wednesday, Aguayo was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, the first Buccaneer rookie kicker to win that award since Martin Gramatica in 1999. Like Gramatica, Aguayo was a higher-than-usual draft pick, the former going in the third round and the latter late in the second after the Buccaneers traded up this past spring. There's a certain amount of attention that comes with that distinction, and it can either be welcome or unwelcome. His first NFL award is obviously the good kind.
"He's getting better every single week," said quarterback Jameis Winston, who was also Aguayo's teammate at Florida State, where both of them were precocious young talents. "It's what we all expected – that's what he's capable of doing week-in and week-out. And you see it, you see flashes of it all the time. I'm just happy because that should boost his confidence up [high] because now he sees that, 'I am this-caliber kicker.' I'm very proud of him. It's a tremendous award for him. But that's 'Berto. 'Berto's been getting awards for kicking his whole life."
After his game-winner in Charlotte and a well-timed bye week, Aguayo came back to make two of three field goal tries in a Bucs win in San Francisco, missing only on a 50-yard attempt, and all four of his extra point tries. He's made nine of 10 since the break and been good on 12 of 13 extra point tries. His Player of the Week Award was the result of a 13-point performance in a two-point win at Kansas City in which he was perfect on four field goals and one extra point.
It was that final kick against the Panthers that may have solidified in his mind what he already knew: He was good enough to excel in the NFL. Now he can separate the inevitable failures of a kicker from his overall belief in himself, especially when he sees peers miss in the same situation in which he succeeded in Charlotte. Even extra points can't be taken for granted from the new, longer distance; there were 12 missed PATs across the NFL last Sunday.
"I missed two that game, so I wasn't really happy with my performance, but at the end of the day, I got the one that needed to go in," said Aguayo. "I don't know if it was that week or the next week when the Seahawks played the Cardinals [and both teams missed game-winning kicks]. At the end of the day, it makes you see those kicks as, 'It went through.' It's huge. But still, I wasn't happy, I wasn't satisfied. I took that week off to just reevaluate where I was and what I wanted. I set some goals and committed to them and just keep on going and just take it as a week."
It wasn't long before his head coach began to see the results in the middle of the week. Prior to his early-season struggles, Aguayo had endured some rough practices in training camp, duly reported on via social media by the crowd in attendance. He had plenty of good days on the practice field, but not many perfect ones. Lately, he's looked like the deadly-accurate kicker that set NCAA records at Florida State.
"I don't know the exact date, but three or four weeks ago … he started making everything in practice," said Koetter. "And before, he was pretty consistent all through training camp, five out of seven in a day, something like that. But he'd have a couple kicks that were off and then three or four weeks ago he streamlined a few things and he's been money in practice ever since. Now, doesn't mean he's never going to miss a kick again, but just look at the league last week, how many kicks were missed. But, he certainly came up big for us last Sunday."
Not only has Aguayo been much sharper since the bye-week break, but he's been much more prominent in the Bucs' outcomes. He only had three attempts through Tampa Bay's first four games, before his busy day in Charlotte in Week Five. Since the bye, he's tried an average of two field goals per game, culminating in his efforts in Kansas City. The Bucs needed every one of those kicks to beat the Chiefs, and he made them all. He knew a day like that was coming and, during the bye week, he put himself on track mentally to handle that eventual challenge.
"[I was] just relaxing, just going back and not thinking about it too much," said Aguayo. "This is what I do best. I've done it for a long time. Sometimes you've got to realize that. With the transition into the NFL, you don't put an excuse on it, you try not to put an excuse on anything. You've just got to get through it. People can say, "Was it this? Was it that? Was it this?' At the end of the day, you've got to grind through it. You've always got to look at the light at the end of the tunnel and keep working.
"I knew my opportunity one of these games was going to come, where I had to kick a lot. I'm glad we came out with the victory. And it's just a process now. Just continue to work and be as consistent as I can be and finish out the season strong."
- RB Charles Sims returned to the practice field on Wednesday for the first time since he was placed on injured reserve with a knee ailment on October 10. As such, he will be the one player on the Bucs' I.R. list who is "designated to return;" the other seven, including wide receiver Vincent Jackson and defensive end Jacquies Smith, are definitely finished for the 2016 season.
Wednesday was the first day that Sims was eligible to return to practice; a player placed on injured reserve must miss at least six weeks before getting that one designated-to-return tag each team gets. He now has a 21-day window to practice with the team without counting against its 53-man roster limit, and he can first be activated to that roster on December 5. As such, the best-case scenario would have Sims back in game action for the final four games of the season, beginning with a Week 13 home game against New Orleans.
Sims wasn't the only member of the Bucs' backfield who was back in action on Wednesday. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers also practiced for the first time since suffering an ankle injury late in the Bucs' October 30 game against Oakland. With Tampa Bay's offense missing both backs – Sims and Doug Martin – that had made up one of the NFL's best backfields the year before, Rodgers had a superb three-game run as a starter, racking up 370 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. At some point soon, the Bucs could have all three in action and fully healthy.
"It was great to have those guys out there," said Koetter. "We've been razor-thin at halfback here for a month and most of you guys were out there for warmups – that was the longest line in history, those guys weren't even getting tired out there, there were so many halfbacks out there. So, we're slowly getting healthier at halfback, but whoever's up – we've already seen this movie – whoever's up, we're expecting them to play well."
Rodgers was still limited in his practice participation on Wednesday, per the team's official injury report, as was tight end Luke Stocker due to an ankle injury. Guard Kevin Pamphile, who has missed the last two games while in the league's concussion protocol, was a full-participant in practice. There were only two Buccaneers held out completely: cornerback Brent Grimes (quad) and center Evan Smith (knee).
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- Tampa Bay's defense has an NFL-high 15 takeaways since Week Five, and thanks to a mostly-irrelevant fumble recovery on the final play in Kansas City, was on the plus side of that ledger for the fifth time in the last six games.
That was a significant feat due to the particular opponent the Buccaneers one-upped on Sunday. The Chiefs came into the game with a league-best plus-14 turnover ratio, which had been perhaps the key factor in the team's five-game winning streak. In essence, the Bucs beat the Chiefs at their own game.
Week 12 brings a different kind of challenge. If the Buccaneers have been the NFL's best takeaway team for the last month and a half, the Seattle Seahawks have been the league's best at protecting the ball in roughly the same span. Seattle committed five turnovers in its first three games of the 2016 season and, amazingly, have given it away only once since. They are tied with Buffalo with an NFL-low six giveaways altogether.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, November 23rd.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith hopes the Bucs' defense continues its hot streak of turnovers despite a great challenge this Sunday.
"The guys, I think they're doing a very good job attacking the ball," said Smith. "Six weeks ago, I said they're going to come in bunches. We saw the effort in practice, it just wasn't translating to on the field, in terms of attacking the football. And, knock on wood, we hope it continues. This is a team, I may have mentioned earlier, has only thrown two interceptions. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us to get some turnovers. But, we know if we get turnovers, it definitely enhances our chances of winning and playing complementary football."
The Seahawks have actually thrown three interceptions, but starting quarterback Russell Wilson has only tossed two. It is very difficult to force Wilson into mistakes, and the Bucs will need a full-team effort, with the pass-rush complementing the secondary, to break that trend.
"I think our whole entire defense as the season goes on, this is a process that we've been going through since March of last year when we first got the opportunity to meet with these guys," said Smith. "It hasn't gone as quickly as we would like, but I think that we see signs here and there of the type of defense that we can be."