K Jay Taylor finished 2004 as the Bucs' kicker and will try to win the job again in 2005
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had connected on a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter at Carolina last Nov. 28, would they have won the game?
It was tied 14-14 at the time. The Bucs, who had rallied impressively to tie the game minutes before, would have taken the lead with that kick, but they still would have had to protect it, and there is at least some reason to doubt that outcome. After all, Jake Delhomme followed the miss with a five-play, 73-yard tightrope of a game-winning touchdown drive.
But what if the Bucs had made all three of the field goals they missed in that game, all from closer than 40 yards? Now do they leave Carolina with a win and, incidentally, a 5-6 record that would have put them in the thick of the playoff race?
The chances would have certainly improved, but we'll never know for sure. What we can say with some degree of certainty, however, is that if the Bucs had fared better than a 62.0% success rate on field goals in 2003-04, they would have finished with a better record than 12-20 over those two disappointing post-Super Bowl seasons.
None of which is to pile on former Buccaneer Martin Gramatica, who was the best kicker in team history for four years before running into inexplicable problems in 2003. The Bucs had never experienced anything like the sustained kicking success Gramatica gave them from 1999-2002, when he was over 80.0% each year and Tampa Bay was four-for-four in playoff berths.
But that's the point. There may be a few other factors that correlate more directly with winning – turnover ratio, rushing success and third-down efficiency come to mind as possibilities – but it's hard to be a consistent winner without a consistent kicking game.
That's no secret to the Buccaneers, who finished last in the league in field goal efficiency in 2003 and tied for last in 2004. One of the offseason missions for 2005 is to regain the team's confidence in its three-point shooting.
"We have to clean up our game," said General Manager Bruce Allen, who is leading the search for the right kicking solution. "We made some critical mistakes that lost us some games. As bad as our record is, we had opportunities to win some of those games. I don't have to go through them with you. The Arizona game was winnable; Carolina, if we can make just two of the kicks we'll be alright."
We are also not here to say that the Bucs' problems of 2003-04 were confined to the kicking game. Tampa Bay also might have won that Carolina game had they not thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown and lost two fumbles, one at the Panthers' 15-yard line. However, a quick look at the Bucs' kicking numbers, historically, unearths compelling evidence that a solid kicking game is crucial.
Of the franchise's first 29 seasons, eight ended in the playoffs. In those eight seasons combined, the Bucs made 76.7% of their field goals (174/227). In the other 21 seasons, the Bucs made just 68.0% of their field goals (362/532).
It should be noted that the overall success of NFL kickers is quite a bit better in the new millennium than it was in the '70s, when the Bucs entered the league. Take the New England Patriots. In 1976, the Bucs' first year, New England went 11-3 and won the AFC East while their kicker, John Smith, hit on only 60.0% of his three-point tries (15/25). This past season, the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years while their kicker, Adam Vinatieri, led the league in field goal accuracy at 93.9% (31/33).
But even if we lop off roughly the first half of the Bucs' history, we still see the same sort of disparity between winning and losing seasons. We choose 1992 as a starting point, since it was the first year of Sam Wyche's coaching tenure and a season in which the Bucs made a change at the kicker spot. In the 13 seasons since, the Bucs were successful on 81.5% of their field goals in five playoff years and on 68.4% of their field goals in eight non-playoff years.
That swing of 13 percentage points is quite significant. The New Orleans Saints made 81.5% of their field goals in 2004 – which was good for only 17th in the league, amazingly – and nearly snuck into the playoffs at 8-8. The Bucs and Chicago Bears were the only teams to finish under 70.0% and both finished 5-11. None of the teams that finished in the bottom seven in that category last year managed to compile a .500 record or better.
So the Bucs are determined to address that shortcoming this year, and every NFL hopeful with a strong leg is aware of it.
"Boy, talk about a position that's going to be calling us," said Allen with a laugh on the eve of free agency. "Any free agent kicker is calling Tampa Bay. We finished last in 2003 in field goal percentage, and I think we finished last in 2004. Players know statistics, and kickers know that there's a job open here."
The first kicker to come aboard in this effort is former New York Giant Matt Bryant. He joins holdover Jay Taylor, who handled the job in Tampa after Gramatica's November release, and first-year man Todd France. Coincidentally, Bryant and France previously battled for the job in New York during last year's preseason, though it eventually went to veteran Steve Christie.
Taylor, who had been plying his trade on the skinnier goal posts in the Arena League before the Bucs called, made it into an NFL regular season for the first time and handled the pressure well. He hit four of his five tries over the final five games, including a 50-yarder in a win over Atlanta on his very first kick. That effort impressed Allen, but it doesn't necessarily make Taylor a lock for the job in 2005.
Bryant, it's worth noting, has a career success rate of 80.0% (40/50), which is basically the magic mark that teams want to hit. Gramatica's four straight plus-80 seasons made him one of the league's most valuable kickers at the time and accounted for four of the five such seasons in team history.
The Bucs would be pleased if Bryant could step in and maintain that career rate, or if any of the other kickers who get a shot could do the same. Since free agency only began last week, and since there are always a handful of relatively experienced kickers on the open market anyway, it's possible that there might be another suitor for the job before it's all said and done.
Allen even said he would be willing to devote a notable chunk of cap space to the position if it was going to be used on a sure thing. He offers up Vinatieri as a perfect example of how much difference a top-of-the-line kicker can make.
"This team that's won three of the last four Super Bowls, I give them great compliments and they deserve all the credit in the world," said Allen. "I think Coach [Bill] Belichick's won, of his 10 playoff games, a minimum of four by three points or loss, and [Vinatieri]'s fantastic. They have a tremendous quarterback and the clutchest kicker that I can ever remember, because he's done them in unbelievable situations."
At the moment, however, Vinatieri is not available. The Patriots wisely tagged him as their franchise player (for the second time in his career). For now, Bryant and Taylor will show off their abilities during the Bucs' offseason training program in Tampa, while France will take his game over to the NFL Europe League for the spring season. Three competitors for three crucial points.
"We're going to have some healthy competition there, and it could be veterans, it could be young guys," said Allen. As I said, it's the easiest position to scout."
And, when so many games are coming down to the closing minutes, one of the hardest ones to forget.