It is a strange situation, to say the least, that kickers Connor Barth and Patrick Murray find themselves in as the NFL's 2015 preseason enters its home stretch. On the other hand, those who strive to build careers in the NFL as specialists know they will occasionally have to deal with unexpected situations and sudden changes.
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Barth noted on Friday, after his first practice in his second stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that it is increasingly rare for players to spend their entire pro careers with one team, and though he didn't specify kickers in particular, that is still particularly true of him and his peers. Now as Barth battles anew for a spot on an NFL roster, he does it against the man who unseated him in Tampa last year. That's the part that makes this particular situation a little more unusual.
"Almost feels like déjà vu from last year," said Barth.
Indeed. A year ago, Barth was returning from the Achilles tendon injury that cost him the entire 2013 season and competing against a rookie trying to make a name for himself. Murray did just that, winning the Bucs' job and going on to have a very good season that included 20 successes in 24 field goal tries, including five of six from beyond 50 yards. That left Barth looking for a new landing spot in the NFL, and he eventually joined his fourth NFL team in Denver. He did just fine for the Broncos, making 15 of 16 field goals for a playoff contender, but lost his job this summer to Brandon McManus, a young kicker with a particularly good leg for kickoffs.
So now it's Barth coming in as the challenger and Murray looking to keep his spot. According to Barth, the two kickers can pursue those competing goals and still remain friends.
"Pat and I are good friends," said Barth. "We came in and talked immediately – nothing about football, just kind of about life and stuff. It's very rare that one guy stays with a team for their whole career anymore. You're just trying to build the best team you can to hopefully win a Super Bowl. We just come in and shake hands, we compete and laugh and have fun off the field."
Barth has always had a sunny outlook, though that was surely tested by his freak injury (suffered in a charity basketball game) and his sudden departure from Tampa after four-and-a-half years.
"That's just the way it is," he said. "I've been through a lot of teams, a lot coaches now. I've met a lot of specialists. I always say I'm, going to treat people the way I want to be treated, no matter what. I haven't come in here any different, with any kind of attitude or anything. Just come in here [and] say 'Hi, what's up, man?' and we're just kind of back to where it was. It's been fun. It's great to put these colors on. This is kind of where I feel most comfortable, so it's cool to be back out here."
A kicker on the move from one NFL outpost to another usually has quite a bit to which to adjust – new holder, new snapper, new locker room culture, new home field, etc. That's not much of a problem for Barth, who worked with long-snapper Andrew DePaola last year and kicked field goals held by both Mike Glennon and Michael Koenen. He's certainly spent plenty of time in the locker room at One Buc Place. And, of course, the mechanics of his actual job on game day are rote by this point.
"It's pretty easy to just get back into it and just roll with it," said Barth. "When you play in the game, everything just kind of takes over and you just go out there and do your thing. It's nothing different, just keep your head down and make good contact and trust in your swing and hopefully it goes through. Luckily I know the wind and all that stuff in that stadium tomorrow night, so I should be able to hit the ball well. That's all you can really do."
Buccaneers K Connor Barth likes to spend his time away from One Buc Place working out on his paddle board.
- Barth has no objection to the league moving the extra point line of scrimmage 13 yards farther back this season, turning the "gimme" PAT into a slightly tougher 33-yard kick. In fact, he preferred a change that probably would have done more to increase the level of difficult on kickers.
"I wanted just to narrow the uprights," he said. "It would make play-calling different. It would just make guys who are a little bit more accurate than they are big legs really thrive."
The NFL experimented with the longer extra point during the 2014 preseason but is now going all in on the idea. So far in the 2015 preseason, the league's kickers have combined to make 100 of 105 extra point attempts (95.2%) of their point-after attempts from the longer distance. Over the previous decade of regular-season games, the league's kickers had been good on 99.1% of PATs from the traditional spot. This summer's five misses have been spread over five teams, including the Bucs, as Murray missed one of his three attempts on Monday night against Cincinnati.
"On extra points, last year and years before, you could kind of just take it for granted and just go out there and swing," said Barth. "Now you've really kind of got to focus in – especially if it gets blocked or something, they can return it for points. It's a big difference in the game. You've just got to really go out there and concentrate. It's still 33-yards, so you're expected – and I expect myself – to make that every time. I still want to try and keep that intact and just help this team however I can."
- Rookie WR Kenny Bell will not play in Saturday's preseason game against Cleveland after suffering a hamstring injury on the practice field on Thursday. **He was held out of the team's Friday field session, but the eventual length of his absence has not yet been determined. One constant in such situations, however, is that Head Coach Lovie Smith leans towards a cautious approach with hamstring injuries, as he did by shutting down wide receiver Mike Evans for the second half of the preseason.
"[Bell] is not playing this week, I know that for a fact," said Smith. "The rest of it, we'll see how it plays out."
At the other end of the hamstring recovery spectrum is safety Chris Conte, who missed almost all of training camp after suffering that injury in the first practice. Conte has returned to practice this week, however, and Smith said on Friday that the veteran defender will play on Saturday, making his Buccaneer debut.
"He has fresh legs," said Smith of Conte, then extending the same description to defensive end T.J. Fatinikun, also just back from a lengthy injury absence. "Those guys look like they just started training camp. Both of them can move around fairly well just in general. Chris has looked good. He will play this week."
Conte will get a chance to insert himself back into a crowded race for starting jobs at safety, and his familiarity with Smith and the Bucs' defensive system should help. Bell, on the other hand, is new to the NFL and is missing out on a greater opportunity to prove himself over the final two weeks of the preseason.
"We've seen him, but we would like to have seen more of him, especially right now and the next couple of weeks," said Smith. "Have we seen enough? No, it's not like he's done enough right now where we say we definitely know what direction to go. None of the young players have. Injuries are part of it. Right now we'll just evaluate him based on what we know right now."