On October 16, 2011, NFL placekicker Connor Barth was in the midst of a nice little season, his third as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. He had pushed a 55-yard field goal attempt against the New Orleans Saints a little wide left in the third quarter of the Buccaneers' Week Six home game, but he had also made shots of 38, 42, 42 and 48 yards and helped his team defeat their division rivals, 26-20.
From that date until the end of the year, Barth would not miss again, and his "nice little season" would develop into the best ever by a Tampa Bay kicker. The Bucs' record would not come out as anyone hoped or expected, but if one were to look for positives during a disappointing campaign, the kicking game would certainly qualify.
In a win over Indianapolis in Week Four, Barth tried a 46-yarder that hit off the right upright and bounced away. There was also the aforementioned low-percentage 55-yarder against the Saints; otherwise, Barth did not miss in 2011. He went 26 for 28 on his field goal tries, a 92.9% success rate that was second only to Matt Bryant's 93.1% (27 of 29) for Atlanta. Barth and Bryant were the only two kickers in the NFL in 2011 to try at least 20 field goals and miss only twice.
Barth's 92.9% field goal rate also established a new Buccaneer single-season record, by a comfortable margin. The old standard had stood since 1990, when Steve Christie made 23 of 27 for a success percentage of 85.2%. Though it's a fairly common occurrence in the NFL these days, Barth also made all of his 23 extra point attempts, tying the team single-season record of 100%.
The Bucs struggles made it a little difficult for Barth to enjoy his best season yet, though on a day-to-day basis he's one of the more upbeat figures in the locker room. There's a very small margin for improvement over what he accomplished personally in 2011, but he'd very much like to be a part of restoring the team's winning ways overall.
"It's always a team effort," said Barth. "I'm glad to do well for my part but I'd much rather trade that for a 12-win season. We're young. We've got to learn from this year and keep moving on to next year. Hopefully we'll put it all back together and get back to where we were the year before when we won 10 games."
Barth's season-ending streak reached 15 straight successful attempts, capped by a 41-yarder last Sunday in Atlanta. That run is currently just one short of the team record; Michael Husted made 16 in a row during a stretch that encompassed parts of the 1995 and 1996 seasons and Martin Gramatica later tied that mark with his career-best run during the 2000 campaign. Barth's streak is still alive, of course. He enters 2012 on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent but he's found a comfort zone in Tampa and would like to return.
"That's my plan," he said. "I hope so. We've got things to work out, and like I said I love it here, love the organization, love the community. I'm finally starting to plant my roots here, so hopefully things will work out."
Though it's intimated above that Barth has played three full seasons as a Buccaneer, it's really only two-and-a-half. In 2009, Tampa Bay began the season with free agent signee Mike Nugent handling kickoffs, but Nugent struggled mightily, making only two of six regular-season attempts after a shaky preseason. He was released after four games and replaced by free agent Shane Andrus. (Nugent has since resurfaced in Cincinnati, where he had a very good 2011 season.)
Andrus missed his only try in three games a Buccaneer and was not considered the answer. In came Barth, who had spent eight games as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 and had then gone to camp with the Miami Dolphins in 2009. In his second game as a Buccaneer, coincidentally back down in Miami, he tied an NFL record by making three field goals of 50 or more yards in the same game. Barth finished that season a respectable but not overwhelming nine of 14 on field goal tries, then came back in 2010 and his career took off.
Last season, Barth made 23 of 28 tries, suffered two of his failed attempts on blocked kicks and never missed from inside 40 yards. He established a level of consistency that made the Buccaneers very comfortable heading into 2011, and he then rewarded the franchise with its best season ever for a kicker, in terms of percentage.
The Bucs' kicking game was quite good overall this past season, as a matter of fact. Punter Michael Koenen, signed away from Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent in July, posted the best single-season net punting average in franchise history (40.3), and the second-best gross average (45.1). Just as importantly, he obliterated the team record with 37 touchbacks as a kickoff specialist, and blasted all but 12 of his 69 kickoffs into the opposing end zone.
Barth had handled the kickoff duties in 2009 and 2010, and he agreed that Koenen's arrival might have played a part in his incremental improvement on field goals.
"It's probably multiple things," said Barth. "I think having Mike kick off has been great, just from the standpoint of keeping my legs fresh. I don't want to get too into details about kicking, but the kickoff motion is completely different from a field goal. Maybe deep down – just being able to work on my field goals all year and not having to really worry about that leg swing on the kickoffs – might have helped. Like I said, Mike did a great job pounding it into the end zone every game pretty much and did a great job punting. He and I are a great tandem here and hopefully we'll be able to stay here for a long time."
Barth's outstanding 2011 season pushed him past Bryant on the Bucs' all-time field goal percentage list, making him the most accurate kicker in team history. Since arriving midway through '09, Barth has made 63 of 75 tries, or 84.0%. He got a new holder in Koenen in 2011 but has been working with long-snapper Andrew Economos since his arrival (excluding the seven-game stretch that Economos missed this season due to injury). Obviously, Koenen and Economos and the rest of the Buccaneers' rather proficient special teams units are a big part of that aforementioned comfort zone that Barth has established in Tampa.
"He's a fantastic holder," said Barth of Koenen. "He's very consistent. He gets the ball down quick. And Eco makes it pretty easy on us – he snaps it with the laces pretty much perfect every time. You can see the consistency all year that we've had and hopefully we can be here together for another 10 years. That would be great."