First-year P Andrew Bayes will handle all of the punting chores in August after Mark Royals' injury
For Andrew Bayes, a first-year punter coming into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2001 training camp, the single most discouraging and single most encouraging thing can be summed up by the same two words: Mark Royals.
Bayes' pro football experience is limited to a short training camp stint with the Detroit Lions last summer and a season in the NFL Europe League this spring. The man ahead of him on the depth chart, Royals, has lofted over 900 NFL punts over 12 seasons, including the last two with the Buccaneers. Royals' 43.1-yard gross average in 1999 was the best mark in team history.
On the other hand, there is the Mark Royals of the late 1980s, a young man struggling to find a place in the NFL. Bayes can look at Royals' history – and he has – and see that perseverance can truly pay off for a young player trying to get a punting leg in the door.
Royals didn't make it as a college free agent with Dallas in 1986. He played only in the replacement games the following year, for St. Louis and Philadelphia. He tried again with the Cardinals in 1988, their first year in Arizona, and was cut early in camp. He didn't play anywhere in '89.
Then, in 1990, Royals beat out incumbent Chris Mohr in Tampa Bay and averaged 40.3 yards per punt. He hasn't looked back since.
And he didn't really want to look down on Monday, either, after a teammate was blocked into his planted right leg, knocking Royals out of practice. Though the injury was not as severe as it could have been – Royals could miss up to a month but expects to be back for the regular season when the job will be waiting for him – it still leaves Bayes as the only punter in camp.
Bayes would like 2001 to be like 1990 was for Royals, and he came into the Bucs' camp not simply to audition for other teams in the league but to try to stick in West Florida. He'll certainly get a long look now, as Head Coach Tony Dungy indicated that the team does not plan to bring in another punter after learning of the extent of Royals' injury.
"I came into this training camp with aspirations of trying to win this job, to be a Buccaneer one way or the other," said Bayes. "It is Mark's job. He's a veteran and a guy that I've looked up to ever since I began to kick, and my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family because this is a tough time for him. On the other hand, I'm trying to break into the NFL. I think this is definitely a good opportunity for me to get out there and show the coaches and show players what I can do."
After an average Monday, Bayes responded with a strong effort on Tuesday with all eyes on him.
"He punted the ball very well today," said Dungy. "Andrew has a great leg. He's a guy that has worked hard. His negative is that he hasn't done it in any NFL games, but neither had Martin (Gramatica) his first year. So we don't really look at that. He'll keep punting and hopefully continue to punt well. But he's got an NFL caliber leg, and that's all we can go by right now."
Added Bayes: "I had a decent day today. I just try to go out every practice and try to improve on the last practice."
The Bucs have actually thought highly of Bayes since his rookie summer, and they brought him for a tryout during camp last year after he was cut in Detroit. As a collegian at East Carolina, Bayes averaged 43.5 yards per punt as a senior and also handled placekicking duties. He is being given a chance to work on kickoffs in camp as well this summer, though Gramatica's own kickoffs were much improved in 2000.
Impressed, the Bucs signed Bayes as soon as the 2000 season ended and quickly allocated him to the NFLEL, where he hooked on with the Frankfurt Galaxy. Though the Galaxy had season-long difficulties at long-snapper that led to some adventurous afternoons for Bayes in Europe, he believes the experience was just what he needed.
"It was good, full-speed reps that I saw in Europe, but it wasn't an all-out rush," he said, explaining that NFLEL rules only allow the opposing team to rush six players at the punter. "For me, it was great. I got released the day before the first preseason game out in Detroit (in 2000) – so I didn't get any preseason experience. So for me it was a big deal to get over to Europe and get exposed to full-speed reps."
That has helped him this year to acclimate more quickly to the NFL, which is noticeably faster.
"So far, I can definitely feel the difference," he said. "I remember last year when I was in training camp with Detroit, I was real timid. I was kind of afraid of what to expect. At least I've seen a little rush, so coming into training camp there's a lot more comfort."
While that's true of his punting, Bayes wasn't necessarily ready for the job of holder on placekicks that fell into his lap when Royals went down. The player listed behind Royals on the depth chart at that position is QB Brad Johnson, who is also injured. Johnson will likely return soon, but during practice the quarterbacks aren't always available to hold as they're working on drills elsewhere.
"I worked (on holding) a little bit in college," said Bayes, who felt he improved greatly in that department on Tuesday after a shaky Monday. "When I wasn't kicking field goals in college, I was holding. I worked a little bit in Europe. Holding is just a comfort thing. I worked the last two days with Martin. Yesterday was a little rough but today we were starting to mold together a little bit."
Gramatica, who learned much from Royals in his first two NFL seasons but is now the veteran teacher in this equation, has helped Bayes to remain calm and focused and to rely on his natural ability. Bayes is confident in the strength of his leg and believes the consistency in his kicking is improving day by day. The team seems confident that Bayes will handle the job well in preseason. Bayes would like to keep a grasp on it longer than that.