Last week, rookie kicker Matt Gay faced his first real pressure moment as a professional and passed the test with flying colors. This week, it was Cairo Santos' turn.
In about seven weeks, Gay and Santos will take a competition that has been slowly percolating during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason program and turn it up to a boil. One of the two will win the Buccaneers' kicking job, and NFL teams vary rarely carry two placekickers at the same time on the 53-man roster.
So there's a lot at stake for both specialists, and if the competition is to be judged by long field goals made with the mood of 89 tired teammates on the line, then Santos and Gay will be even heading into that training camp. On Thursday, Santos won the Buccaneers an early start to their long summer break by drilling a 48-yard field goal with the whole team assembled around him.
"That one kick out there," said Santos, "probably mattered more than any field goal period during the offseason."
The Buccaneers only practiced for about 20 minutes on Thursday morning as they capped a three-day mini-camp that was the last stop on their three-month offseason program. Head Coach Bruce Arians would have kept them on the field for about another 30 minutes, according to Santos, if he had missed. As it is, Arians was willing to give the players a bit of a break because he was satisfied with the results of the offseason.
"Nobody’s happier to see that field goal go through than me," he said. "I was really pleased. From the beginning to now we’ve made the progress I was hoping we’d make. Are we there? No, but I like where we’re at right now. The work ethic on this group is amazing. Everybody shows up, everybody works, everybody’s bought in, so that’s all you can ask as a coach. Hopefully we’ll stay in shape and have everybody report healthy when we get back."
Thanks to Santos, the Bucs will go into the break in a good mood, after mobbing him and loudly voicing their approval following his successful kick.
"They've worked so hard this whole offseason," said Santos. "I'm so proud of this team. To give them a little break, they appreciate that, and I appreciate them, too. It's good to see that they have my back and I've got theirs, too."
As Santos noted, the Buccaneers have plenty of practice periods devoted specifically to field goals during OTAs and the mini-camp, but it's the game-like drills and the special moments like Thursday that are the best preparation for actual pressure work.
"We've been doing that pretty much every single day of OTAs, some type of two-minute drill, must-win, need three points," he said. "You can't get enough of those things. Sometimes you get in a field goal period, and it's important to practice field goals, but you can't get in a rhythm because we're kicking one [player] after another, and it's not like that in a game. In those two-minute drills, we're just standing on the sideline, waiting for the time to kick and go out there and have to perform. So it's great that they're emphasizing that."
Santos, of course, has made pressure kicks in the NFL before, so he does have that advantage over his rookie teammate. For instance, in November of 2016 he had two last-second game-winners in a span of three weeks for the Kansas City Chiefs, one as time expired to finish a 17-point comeback against Carolina and one with five seconds left in overtime to beat Denver. Santos once had seven field goal tries in a single game, against Cincinnati in 2015, and made all of them, including two from beyond 50 yards. He's even won a training camp competition before, that time as the rookie against veteran Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop.
It's safe to say he's not scared of the competition he'll face in camp from Gay. In fact, he thinks it can help him.
"My number-one competition is with myself," he said. "I need to improve from the day before. But having Matt here – he's a tremendous, powerful kicker – I think he rejuvenates a little bit my competitive spirit. Three offseasons I was the only guy in Kansas City. Last year I competed a little bit in tryouts, and I feel like it's great to be in those environments to get ready for the season. Here we are again, another great competition to get ready for an important season."
Santos took over the Buccaneers' kicking duties midway through last season after the team chose to release struggling veteran Chandler Catanzaro. Santos made nine of his 12 field goals and all 17 extra point tries over the final seven games of the season and impressed enough to get a new contract in Tampa in March. Still, the team used a fifth-round kick on Gay as part of an ongoing effort to stop a kicking carousel that has been spinning, with often poor results, since 2013. No matter which of the two wins the Bucs' job, it will mark the eighth straight season the Buccaneers will start with a new kicker.
"I know the kicking game has killed the Bucs in the past," he said. "We just want to change that vision. I think we've got two great kickers here that want to help the team win."