K Jay Taylor had a tough first exam as an NFL kicker: A 50-yard field goal try in the middle of a playoff race
After the game, Jay Taylor had a few little quibbles with his first NFL field goal attempt. He didn't strike it quite as well as he would have liked, for instance, and he had to stand there in the kicker's follow-through pose right until the last second.
And it didn't necessarily have the clean lines of a fine work of art, wobbling a bit on its way to the target and seeking out a dangerous corner guarded by two unforgiving yellow beams.
Oh, but it was a thing of beauty.
The first field goal Taylor was asked to make in his NFL career was a 50-yard try in a do-or-die December game, the equivalent of a PGA rookie being asked to stick a 100-yard wedge next to a pin tucked into the corner of a sloping green. Yeah, you can make that shot eight times out of 10 in practice, but when the pressure's on and the crowd is teetering between a cathartic release and a pained sigh, it's a different matter altogether.
Or, as Kenyatta Walker said: "Welcome to the NFL."
How did Taylor do? Here's what Walker said in his next breath:
"I love the guy already."
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Simply hit a 50-yarder on your first field goal try in the National Football League, with your team's already-tenuous playoff hopes hanging in the balance. Taylor's kick took off well but developed a wobble, as well as an unhealthy attraction to the right goal post. Still, it found a way to slide to the left of that post and a few feet over the crossbar, christening an Amen Corner for 28-year-old first-year kickers.
A good portion of the Buccaneer bench came onto the field to greet Taylor after he nailed that try, welcoming him not only to the NFL but to this team. There's no doubt his new teammates were impressed by his performance in such a pressure-cooker of a debut.
"I can't imagine the pressure he was under," said guard Cosey Coleman. "The NFL; Raymond James Stadium was jumping; replacing Martin. To come in and fill those shoes was big."
Added running back Michael Pittman, who had run for 14 yards on third-and-one to set up the kick: "When he made the 50-yard field goal, I know that says a lot. It was his first NFL kick and he put it through, everybody ran on the field. I was so excited about it. I feel that Martin Gramatica is a great kicker, but [Taylor] stepped up today and made a big-time kick and that was what we needed of him."
Indeed, the Buccaneers needed to rebuild their confidence in the kicking game altogether. As magnificent as Gramatica had been during most of his six-year career in Tampa, his struggles over the past two seasons had made most of the Bucs' pressure kicks a trying experience. But on this day, with the Bucs building momentum against a first-place team but still far from in control, Taylor's 50-yard conversion, as well as a 30-yarder later in the same quarter, gave the team's confidence a much-needed boost.
"It makes a difference what he did today," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It's a credit to him."
Taylor traveled a long path to get to his National Football League debut, with stops in the one-and-done XFL, the condensed Arena League and several other NFL training camps. Of course, now that he's made it to the top, he still is guaranteed nothing; the Bucs will find out over time whether Taylor is the long-term solution to their kicker position. But he knows this much: He is the Bucs' kicker now, and thus he has a better chance than anyone else to prove he is worthy of the job. Fifty-yard shots in a December playoff chase help; cool confidence that he can do it again help even more.
"It felt the same as going out in practice and kicking," Taylor insisted. "I never really feel pressure or anything out there. I had the mindset that I was going to make it and I went out there and did that. I was happy with how the game went."
The same was obviously true for the entire Buccaneer team, which shut out the first-place Falcons, 27-0, and dominated most phases of the ballgame. They played stifling defense against the league's most unpredictable and elusive player, Michael Vick; they ran the ball when they needed to, picking up 10 rushing first downs; they collected five big takeaways and only turned it over once.
And they kicked the ball through the uprights. Things like that make a difference.
"It was great for him," said quarterback Brian Griese. "It was great for our team and hopefully, he can build on that."
Taylor has a supportive environment in which to do so. His new Buc teammates expressed confidence in him before the game – the best strategy, after all – and felt vindicated after Taylor nailed every kick he was asked to make.
"Coming in, you are never quite sure how people will react to you," said Taylor. "It was definitely a warm welcome."