P Josh Bidwell is on pace to set new team records for both gross and net punting
Josh Bidwell, the former Green Bay punter who recently kicked in his first December home game as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, noticed something different about the experience right away.
Well, 11 somethings, really.
That would be his 10 fingers and his right foot.
A kinder environment for his extremities – not to mention his booming punts – has made Bidwell glad he chose Tampa when he became a free agent for the first time this past offseason.
"Feeling my hands in December is definitely the biggest difference," said Bidwell with a laugh. "Seriously, though, the ball in that cold air just doesn't go anywhere – it's really flat and hard and kind of hurts your foot when you kick it. Down here you don't have to deal with any of that."
Bidwell signed with the Buccaneers on March 13, a little over a week into the free agency period. It was the perfect marriage of two goals. Bidwell, having performed well in the sometimes difficult conditions of Lambeau Field, wanted to try out his leg in a new climate. And the Bucs, having chosen not to pursue the re-signing of Tom Tupa, craved a proven commodity at punter.
Both sides felt that Bidwell's good stats in Green Bay could become great in Florida. As the Roseburg, Oregon native continues to excel late into the season, it has become clear that this theory was a sound one.
"Being in the cold really starts to take a toll on your body this time of year," said Bidwell. "You have to warm up longer up there, but down here I'm pretty much on the same schedule I was at the beginning of the year. It's easier to pace myself and keep my leg strong."
Moreover, the Buccaneers were determined to upgrade their special teams for 2004 after a dismal showing in that third of the game in '03. To that end, they brought on such kick-coverage standouts as Jeff Gooch and Keith Burns at the same time they were signing Bidwell, and they later drafted Marquis Cooper and Will Allen and re-signed Corey Ivy.
Those offseason efforts have been uniformly successful, particularly in the punting game. Bidwell has been everything the Bucs were hoping for, if not more.
In fact, Bidwell is celebrating his first year in Tampa with a career year. He currently ranks second in the NFL with a 39.1-yard net average and fourth in the NFC with a 43.6-yard gross average. Both of those marks, if maintained for four more games, would set new franchise records. Tom Tupa owns the gross-average mark at 43.3, set last year, and Tommy Barnhardt had the best net, at 37.8, set in 1996.
Those numbers would also be career highs for Bidwell, who is clearly enjoying the tundra-free kicking environs. He also has found favorable conditions in terms of his cohorts on special teams. The length of his punts might seem like a one-man responsibility, but Bidwell gives much of the credit to his coach and punting-squad teammates. His point is particularly valid when it comes to that outstanding net average, which keeps track of the actual yardage gained by the kicking team on the entire punt play, after the opposing team's return or touchback.
"Kicking down here in the nice weather helps, but the real credit goes to my punt team," said Bidwell. "Starting with Dave Moore – he's a phenomenal snapper, and I haven't gotten any bad snaps all year. My coverage team has been doing a tremendous job. The times I haven't got of a good punt they've gotten down there to minimize the return.
"And I think that it ultimately all comes down to [Special Teams] Coach [Rich] Bisaccia," said Bidwell. "He does a great job of coaching the punt team. The guys understand how to cover and what to do, and that minimizes a lot of returns. He deserves a lot of the credit for our success."
As usual, field position will be at a premium when the Buccaneers take on the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. The game pits two red-hot defenses, so yardage and points could be hard to come by. One or two special teams plays could prove to be decisive.
You could say that has already been the case in several Buccaneer games this year, though not necessarily in a good way. The team has struggled mightily on placekicks this season, with former Pro Bowler Martin Gramatica inexplicably losing his touch. Now Gramatica has been replaced by league newcomer Jay Taylor, and Bidwell has taken it upon himself to help the former Arena League kicker get acclimated to life in the NFL.
Bidwell had struck up a fast friendship with the affable Gramatica, but he has also quickly become impressed by his new kicking partner. Taylor, in turn, has appreciated the help he has received from his veteran teammate.
"Josh has been fantastic," said Taylor. "Coming into a new team, you're never quite sure how everyone's going to treat you. He greeted me with open arms and has been showing me the ropes. He's helped me get the NFL routine down."
After Taylor made his first NFL field goal last Sunday, a 50-yarder no less, Bidwell was the first to congratulate him.
"Jay's my age, but he's an NFL-young guy," said Bidwell. "It's been a lot of fun having him around and helping him out. When I broke into the league I was fortunate enough to have a guy [Ryan Longwell] who'd been in a couple years to show me the ropes. Having a veteran like that around made things easier for me – I didn't have to worry about stubbing my toe or doing anything wrong. I've been trying to do the same thing for Jay."
It's an interesting role for Bidwell, playing the veteran who has become comfortable in his surroundings, considering he has only been a Buccaneer for nine months. But that's what Bidwell has discovered in Tampa – a comfort level.
Right down to his fingers and toes.