K Matt Bryant has made 10 of his first 11 field goal tries as a Buccaneer
In the NFL, all that really matters is first.
Eighth place doesn't often get you much. This isn't hockey; eighth doesn't even get you into the playoffs. Eighth in the offensive rankings means you're on the verge of being very good. The eighth man down on kickoff coverage is just standing around as those involved in the tackle celebrate.
Ah, but eighth can feel awfully good when it's replacing a number four times as high. And eighth can feel especially good when it is but a whisker away from being first.
Seven weeks into the season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rank eighth in offensive field goal percentage. And they could hardly be happier about it.
Matt Bryant, who won an intense training camp battle with Todd France (now handling the duties in Philadelphia while David Akers is hurt), has made 10 of his first 11 field goal tries this season. Last year, the Bucs made 15 field goals all season, in 24 attempts.
That 62.5% success rate on three-pointers in 2004 was dead last in the league, 32 out of 32 teams. That wasn't even a step down from 2003, when the Bucs ranked second-to-last in that category with a mark of 61.5%.
Bryant's success rate of 90.9% so far is music to the Bucs' ears, a beautiful, harmonious thing for a team that had once been iron-clad in the kicking game, only to be kicked repeatedly with an iron-toed boot over the last two years. It is no surprise that this fall, as reporters suggest to Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden the reasons for his team's turnaround from 1-5 in 2004 to 5-1 this year (Cadillac Williams, run defense, turnovers, etc), Gruden usually adds: "And we're making our kicks."
Five of the seven teams ahead of the Bucs on the kicking accuracy chart have made all of their field goals, a mark Bryant can't reach after pushing a 46-yard try a bit right against Detroit on October 2. Two other teams, Buffalo and San Diego, have also missed once, and have had more attempts (14 of 15 and 11 of 12, respectively) for a slightly better average. Since perfect placekicking seasons are relatively rare – there have been four, including two in the last five years – Bryant can assure himself of being among the league leaders if he continues to hit 10 of 11.
Furthermore, Bryant's kicks have been meaningful. He made shots of 42 and 43 yards against Green Bay and Detroit, in games that ended up in 17-16 and 17-13 finals, respectively. At New York, he made four straight attempts in the often swirling winds of the Meadowlands to keep the Bucs in the game; had he gotten one more chance, a 14-12 defeat might have been Tampa Bay's fifth straight win.
Gruden, who considered fixing the kicking game one of the team's top two or three priorities between last season and this one, has probably enjoyed each of Bryant's 10 field goals more than anyone.
"I've been very impressed," said Gruden. "His accuracy on field goals has been excellent, he's made some clutch kicks and he's certainly kicking off well, too. He's been a strength of our team. Our specialists have done quite well."
Gruden also complimented long-snapper Dave Moore on his work this season, and it's true that Bryant's success has been the product of 11 men working together. Punter Josh Bidwell, in the midst of his own Pro Bowl-caliber season, has been flawless on the hold, and the blocking up front hasn't had any breakdowns. That's notable. It's hard to forget that the Bucs' kicking woes of the last two years began with a blocked extra point against Carolina that would have won the game at the end of regulation.
The biggest improvement in the Bucs' field goal game has come between 40 and 49 yards. That's not an easy task by any means, but the kickers in today's NFL have become very proficient from that range. To be an elite kicker, one really needs to make about three of four opportunities in the 40 to 49-yard range.
Bryant has made five of six, missing on just that aforementioned 46-yarder. That's as many kicks in that range as the Bucs made in 2003 and 2004 combined, when they were 5-of-14 from 40 to 49 yards. And, yes, it's likely that there would have been more than 14 such opportunities over two seasons if the coaches were confident in the kicker. Bryant is also 5-of-5 in the 30 to 39-yard range; the Bucs were a queasy 8-of-14 in that situation in 2003-04.
By the end of the year, Bryant and the Bucs would like to be first in field goal percentage; that would certainly help in the overall goal of staking out first place in the standings. For now, though, eighth is feeling quite nice.