Connor Barth remembers sitting in his car in the parking lot outside the Miami Dolphins' facility in the summer of 2009, trying to decide if his NFL dream was still worth pursuing.
"I didn't even know if I wanted to play anymore because I was just down on myself," he said. "But I kept fighting and I ended up here and just kicked away. I'm really excited to be where I'm at. It's a blessing, and I just want to continue to work and get better."
"Here" is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' facility, and it's also his home for the foreseeable future after he signed a new four-year contract with the team on Thursday. The Buccaneers had placed their franchise tag on Barth, a pending unrestricted free agent, on March 1, and he could have returned to the team at any time on a one-year deal simply by signing that tender offer. Instead, Barth and the Buccaneers worked out a deal that indicates the team's confidence in him following his record-breaking season in 2011.
And thus, two years and nine months after his second NFL team, the Dolphins, waived him at the end of the preseason and put his NFL career in doubt, Barth has achieved what he called "a dream come true."
"I've been working my whole career for something like this, for this opportunity," he said. "For the Bucs' organization, [General Manager] Mark Dominik, Coach [Greg] Schiano and everyone to believe in me, to know that I'll be their kicker for the next four years, is awesome. I love Tampa. It's just an amazing opportunity and I want to continue to perform like I have and live up to their expectations. I want to thank everyone – the fans, everybody, the team behind me – and I'm looking forward to getting back on the field."
Barth has more than lived up to expectations since arriving in Tampa midway through the 2009 season. The team had already Mike Nugent and Shane Andrus at the kicker position during the first seven games of the campaign, to the tune of a combined two-for-seven on field goal opportunities. Barth made 14 of his 19 attempts the rest of the way and, in just his second game as a Buccaneer, tied an NFL record by making three field goals of 50 or more yards in the same game. That game, fittingly, took place in Miami against the Dolphins.
Barth has only gotten better in the two years that followed. In 2010, he connected on 23 of 28 tries for a field goal success rate of 82.1% that narrowly missed breaking the Bucs' single-season record. Last year, he claimed that record with room to spare, besting Steve Christie's 1990 mark of 85.2% (23 of 27) by making 26 of his 28 tries. The resulting field goal percentage of 92.9% ranked second in the entire NFL by a very slim margin, trailing only the 93.1% mark posted by Matt Bryant, who was good on 27 of 29 tries.
His field goal rate has gone up in each of his three seasons with the Buccaneers, and Barth insists he will work to be even better in 2012.
"Every year is about trying to get better," he said. "I just want to take it one kick at a time – you never want to forget about that. I don't want to forget about what I did to get to this point and never lose sight of that – stay hungry, stay humble and do what I can to help this team win games."
Overall, Barth is the most accurate kicker in Buccaneers franchise history, making 63 of his 75 attempts for a success rate of 84.0%. He recently passed Bryant on that chart, as the former Buc and current Falcon was 98 of 118 from 2005-08. Over the past two seasons combined, Barth ranks as the fourth-most accurate kicker in the NFL, with an 87.5% success rate.
Barth has also proven to be a weapon from long range. In his two-and-a-half Buccaneer seasons he has made 30 of his 40 attempts for 40 yards or further, including six of nine from 50 or more. He owns three of the 19 longest field goals in franchise history, including a 55-yard shot last season that tied for third-longest in team annals.
Barth first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 after a strong career at the University of North Carolina. He was waived just before the start of the preseason in favor of Nick Novak, but later replaced Novak at midseason and went on to appear in 10 games making 10 of his 12 field goal attempts. Barth spent the 2009 offseason in Kansas City but was waived just prior to training camp and signed two weeks later by the Dolphins.