K Matt Bryant has made roughly 82% of his field goal tries since entering the NFL
Matt Bryant understands his comment will fall mostly on deaf ears. He knows what he is saying is counter-intuitive to what most believe, so he doesn't expect to convince many people.
But it's the truth as he sees it, and Bryant is a straightforward Texan, so he figures he'll say it anyway. This is it: Bryant doesn't feel any pressure when kicking field goals. That's true even with the game is on the line.
How about last Sunday's 45-yarder, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stunning comeback and potential upset win in Atlanta hanging in the balance? Actual quote: "Just another kick."
Okay, stop here and ask yourself if you believe Bryant. He actually feels little or no pressure when attempting an important field goal? Even with millions of people watching and 52 very imposing teammates counting on him? Come on, there's no quickening of the pulse when the ball is spotted, say, 52 yards away as opposed to 32? There's not even a little mental freeze-up when the opposition calls a timeout to ice him?
You and I, we say, "Sure there's pressure. Seriously, there has to be. But perhaps the difference is in experience. Bryant has been there before, many times. He says he's been working on that kick since he was five years old. He knows exactly what to do to make that field goal. He knows exactly how it feels to do it correctly and how to duplicate that feeling. And he knows no reason, beyond blind chance, to expect anything to go wrong.
And maybe he's right.
Let's look at the results. Bryant has played in 41 NFL games for the Bucs, Giants, Dolphins and Colts (will get to all that traveling in a minute) and attempted 66 field goals. He has made 54 of those tries, for a success rate of 81.8%. That puts him over the golden rate all NFL teams are hoping to achieve in the modern NFL: 80%. In other words, Bryant is an upper-echelon performer in the most advanced stage for his specific talent, and he has been ever since he got into the league.
No wonder he's confident.
When the Buccaneers, a team with an almost complete void at the kicker position after 2004, signed Bryant in early March they got a man who had made exactly 80% of his NFL field goal tries. So far, he has been even better than that in pewter and red, connecting on 14 of 16 tries for a success rate of 87.5%.
His teammates, who suffered alongside former kicker Martin Gramatica during Gramatica's two-year struggle, have loved it. Cornerback Ronde Barber already had a scouting report on Bryant from his twin brother, Giants running back Tiki Barber, and he's found every word to be true.
"He's awesome," said Barber. "There's no doubt that we've missed that kind of consistency in the kicking game the past couple years, and he's brought it back. Minus some injuries, over the past two years he's probably one of the best kickers in the league. Tiki [Barber] raves about him when he was in New York before he got hurt. I think we're seeing him at his best right now."
The Giants gave Bryant his first NFL job in 2002, though that was hardly the beginning of the 30-year-old kicker's quest to make a living out of his right leg. He starred in junior college for two years in order to get a shot at Baylor, then made 21 field goals and 42 extra points in two years for the Bears. He spent a year plying his trade in the Arena League with the aptly named Iowa Barnstormers, but was through with that leg of his career by April of 2000.
Before signing with the Giants almost two years later, Bryant spent time working in a pawn shop back in Orange, Texas and mulling plans to become an FBI agent. New York gave him a shot and sent him over to Europe for the NFLEL, but he got hurt and didn't get to show his stuff.
Nevertheless, Bryant won the job out of camp and held it for the entire season, making 26 of 32 attempts. He missed five games in '03 with a hamstring injury, however, then lost his job with the Giants the next summer when New York brought in veteran Steve Christie. That turned Bryant into the NFL's resident fill-in, the man teams called when their own kicker was out with an injury. He ended up playing in four combined games with the Dolphins and the Colts and reliably making three of four field goals and all 12 extra points he tried.
The Bucs, meanwhile, were scuffling through Gramatica's second straight tough season. The once automatic kicker eventually lost his job in November and the Bucs finished out the year with former Arena Leaguer Jay Taylor. Taylor handled the job nicely, but the team was still on the lookout over the winter. That led to the signings of Bryant and Todd France, who had previously battled with Bryant for the job in New York.
Bryant had more NFL experience but France was an obvious talent, and he went on to break most of the NFLEL's kicking records over the spring. Both kickers went into Bucs camp with reason to be confident.
France was hot from day one in Orlando; Bryant was not. He struggled a bit early on before really finding his groove. By the end of the preseason, the Bucs knew they had the dead-on kicker they thought they had signed in Bryant. He was never concerned.
"I wanted to win this job," he said, though he also understood that he was auditioning for every team in the league. "There were a few practices where I didn't have a good day at work. But you can't let that discourage you. You go out there on game day and keep doing your job because you never know what can happen throughout the league. Ideally, I wanted to be here and I got the job. I'm still here and doing what I knew I could do."
The Bucs' in-game strategy has changed because of Bryant's accuracy, and so have the results. Field goal kicking isn't the only difference between Tampa Bay's 5-11 mark last year and this season's 7-3 start, but neither is it insignificant. Head Coach Jon Gruden gave Bryant a good portion of the credit for a one-point win in Green Bay, a four-point victory over Detroit and last Sunday's comeback in Atlanta. The team feels confident that, if a big kick is needed down the stretch in the playoff hunt, Bryant will be as dependable as ever.
Now that he's won the Bucs' job, however, Bryant is thinking more in terms of what is best for the team. And touchdowns are better than field goals.
"Whenever I see [Quarterbacks] Coach [Paul] Hackett in the hallway he asks me if I'm ready today and I tell him that I'm ready to kick extra points," said Bryant. "I would love to kick as many extra points as I can, but if it comes down to a field goal for six games than I'll do it for six games. Whatever I have to do."