Rookie K Martin Gramatica has played like a seasoned veteran
Despite the praise that has been heaped on QB Shaun King and the confidence he has inspired, there is still a small matter of talk-radio fodder that the Buccaneers might head into the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. Strangely, no one seems concerned that Tampa Bay will also be relying on a rookie to make whatever crucial field goals are necessary.
Perhaps that's because rookie K Martin Gramatica is already being viewed as one of the NFL's best at his position. The fans certainly think so – Gramatica led the NFC's kickers in the fan portion of Pro Bowl balloting, which was just recently concluded. Gramatica, in fact, had 46% more votes than his nearest competitor, proven veteran Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions. Although the final Pro Bowl roster will be determined by a combination of fan, player and coach input, Gramatica's fine standing in stadium balloting is an indication of how quickly Buccaneer fans have come to rely on their new clutch kicker.
Tampa Bay's coaching staff certainly has that confidence in Gramatica. "We don't really think of him as a rookie," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We look at him as one of the better kickers in the league. We think he's going to go out there and do his job every time, and we haven't been disappointed. I ask him before the game what he thinks his range is that day, and if we get in that range, we think he's going to make it."
Of course, the hopeful confidence of April doesn't become an unshakable on-the-sideline-in-December belief until your kicker has proved himself on the field. Just three months into his rookie campaign, Gramatica seems to have done just that. He has missed just four times in 26 attempts and is on the verge of breaking most of the team's placekicking records. For example:
· Gramatica has 87 points through 13 games, a pace that would give him 107 by season's end. The Buccaneers' single-season record is 99, set by Donald Igwebuike in 1989.
· Gramatica has 22 successful field goals in 1999, three shy of the team record. Michael Husted, now Oakland's kicker, made 25 of 36 attempts in 1996.
· Gramatica has a field goal success rate of 84.6%. The team standard is 85.2%, set by Steve Christie in 1990 when Christie hit on 23 of 27 tries. Gramatica would be tied with that mark if he makes his next kick.
· Michael Husted set the team record for consecutive field goals made by hitting on 16 straight in a span from November of 1995 to September of 1996. Gramatica is currently enjoying a streak of nine straight that is not even his personal NFL best. The rookie started off his career by making his first 10 straight.
One of Gramatica's four misses this season was a block, and another came from 51 yards out. That does not mean, however, that Dungy is afraid to use him from long range. Against Atlanta on November 21, Gramatica tied a team single-game record with four field goals, including a 50-yarder midway through the fourth quarter and a game-winning 53-yarder with less than a minute left. Overall, Gramatica has made three of four tries from 50 yards or further and eight of 10 from 40 yards or further.
Those efforts, plus his outstanding work in college at Kansas State, have helped him compile such catchy nicknames as 'Automatica' and 'Dramatica' or the Bermanesque 'Gramatica-lly Correct'. He made a 65-yarder as a junior at K-State, an NCAA record for longest kick without a tee, and routinely makes 60+-yarders in practice at One Buccaneer Place. Teammates thus have seen him remain steady not just in 13 games this year but every day in practice.
"He's come in and done very well," said 10th-year veteran C Tony Mayberry, who played with both Christie and Husted. "He has kicked as well as anyone in the league this year. Any doubts or worries I might have had at the beginning of the season are certainly gone now. Also, whether it's fair or not, guys are sometimes judged by what they're like off the field. Martin's a great guy, and that makes you think he will do well on the field."
As do 53-yard field goals with the game, and maybe the season, on the line. Gramatica has handled every situation and every kick of his first NFL season with composure and accuracy, so much so that he is hardly even considered a rookie anymore.