K Martin Gramatica (7) has been strong in December for the Bucs
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were traveling to Chicago last Saturday at the same time the Arizona Cardinals took on the New York Giants. That might have been for the best, as it spared Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica the discomfort of watching his younger brother, Bill, suffer a knee injury during the Cardinals' 17-13 loss.
Martin learned of the bad news shortly after the Bucs landed in Chicago, and it was a lousy way for the weekend to begin for him, though surely worse for Bill. By Monday, the bad news was complete: Bill had torn the ACL in his right knee, in the leg he plants on for kicks.
Martin's thoughts on Saturday were surely on his younger brother, but there was a game of his own to play on Sunday, and the Bucs were hoping their Gramatica had a more enjoyable outing than his brother did.
Not much went right for the Bucs that weekend, either, but Gramatica did hit on his only field goal try of the day, a 25-yarder, in Tampa Bay' 27-3 loss.
The thought that Gramatica might not have a good game had only recently seeped into the consciousness of Buccaneer fans, thanks to a very uncharacteristic four misses in eight field goal tries from November 18 through December 2. Though far from a slump, that was easily the toughest run of Gramatica's stellar three-year career. He missed only five of 32 kicks as a rookie, only six of 34 last year on his way to the Pro Bowl.
Since Gramatica's confidence has not been shaken by the recent misses, and since the Bucs have far too many memories of clutch kicks to worry about their young kicker, that pseudo-slump is likely to die soon, perhaps beginning with Sunday's short kick. Still, some recent practice efforts have reflected Gramatica's current troubles.
"He's been a little bit up and down in practice, too," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy, though with out a trace of worry. "Normally, we're used to seeing him go two or three weeks without missing a kick in practice, and he's missed some. But, generally, he gets on by the end of the week and we always have confidence by the time we get to game time."
That pattern held true the week of the Chicago game, as Gramatica misfired a few times on Wednesday but was flawless on Thursday, nailing three straight 48-yard shots at the end of the practice's two-minute drill. Gramatica's practice exploits are sometimes stunning – hitting 55-yarders from the sideline, for instance – but his kicks on Thursday looked routine, hitting well up the net and straight down the middle.
Dungy repeated once again, though there was never any doubt, that he remains supremely confident in his kicker. While the Bucs' coach has been accused of over-the-top loyalty, this particular attitude is borne of experience. Gramatica suffered through a mini-slump during the 2000 preseason but went on to a team-record 126 points and 28 field goals when the games counted, including a team record-tying 16 in a row at midseason. One of those 28 shots was a 46-yarder through a heavy rain in Miami that gave the Bucs a critical playoff-run win last December.
"You always feel better – I think we feel better calling field goals in certain situations – if you're strong in practice," said Dungy. "But he's not a guy we worry about. We feel like he's going to make them in the games."
The game currently in question is the Bucs' crucial matchup with New Orleans on Sunday. Gramatica had just one field goal in the last Saints-Bucs matchup, in 1999, but he has been a rock in December and January regular-season games, making 11 of 13 tries.
Bill's season with the Cardinals ended much sooner than either he or his older brother would have liked. Martin's season with the Bucs, however, could extend well into January, especially if the Bucs need a clutch field goal somewhere down the stretch.