Buccaneer teammates will welcome Matt Bryant (3) back with open arms after his clutch performances in 2005
It isn't easy securing one of the 32 NFL placekicking jobs in the world, much less building a reputation as a clutch kicker at the highest level. Matt Bryant was able to do that with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005 and, as an unrestricted free agent, he could have used that breakout season as a springboard to court offers from around the league.
Instead, Bryant chose to return to the scene of his success, re-signing with the Buccaneers before free agency was even a day old.
The signing continued a red-letter day for the Buccaneers, who like the rest of the NFL was saved from a lot of red ink by Wednesday's CBA extension, which raised the 2006 salary cap by $7.5 million. With or without the extra cap space, the Bucs were planning to work aggressively to maintain as much of the core of their 2005 division-winning team as possible. Bryant was the third standout performer of '05 who re-signed with the team on Saturday, following defensive tackle Chris Hovan and fullback Mike Alstott. All of the signings came quickly on the heels of the beginning of free agency, which kicked off at 12:01 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Before free agency began, the Bucs also re-upped with quarterback Chris Simms, who started the last 10 games of 2005, and cornerback Juran Bolden, who solidified the nickel back position, a former trouble spot.
Bryant, who won an intense training camp battle with fellow kicker Todd France last summer, also turned a former Buc weakness into a strength. With the sudden and surprising troubles of former Pro Bowler Martin Gramatica, the Bucs had suffered through two seasons (2003-04) at the bottom of the league's field-goal percentage rankings. Kicking woes contributed to a number of close losses during those two seasons, as the Bucs followed their Super Bowl season with 7-9 and 5-11 records.
Tampa Bay rebounded to 11-5 and the NFC South title last year, and there were certainly many reasons for that improvement. One was Bryant's kicking; he made 21 of 25 tries (84%), including 18 of 18 in the 30-49 yard range and had the game-winning kicks in two key wins over Atlanta. After going 4-15 in games decided by three points or less in 2003-04, the Bucs were 6-3 in that situation in 2005.
Before signing with the Buccaneers last spring, Bryant played two seasons with the New York Giants (2002-03) and appeared in games for the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts in 2004. In 27 games as a Giant, he made 37 of 46 field goals (80.4%), including seven of nine from 40 yards out or further. He missed part of 2003 with a hamstring injury, however, and that eventually led to the Giants going with veteran Steve Christie in 2004. Released just before the season, Bryant didn't land another full-time job but filled in for injured kickers in Miami and Indy and made three of four tries on the season.
Overall, Bryant has made 81.3% of his career field goal tries (61-75) and he also provides a strong leg on kickoffs and a supremely confident presence on the sidelines. The Bucs had signed three kickers since the end of the 2005 season, including the experienced former Cowboy Billy Cundiff, but there is no doubt that Bryant's return is the third piece of very good news to come out of team headquarters on Saturday.