Last week, two days before his team's planned scrimmage at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians boiled the kicking competition between Matt Gay and Elliott Fry to one word: Consistency. The most consistent kicker would win the job, Arians said, and particularly the one most consistent from 35 yards out and closer.
This was not news to Gay, the 2019 fifth-round pick out of Utah who performed well for most of his rookie season before a slump in the final three weeks. So he surely wasn't surprised to hear Arians emphasize the point again after Sunday's practice.
"I'm looking for consistency on the 'gimmes'" said the coach. "We can't miss extra points. We can't give away easy points. Kicks inside the 30-yard line should be automatic. If you can make a 56-yarder, that's great. But, when we drive the ball down to the 10 and miss a field goal, there's nothing that tears a team more apart on offense than, 'Hey, we just took the ball down the field and we didn't get any points.' So, the 'gimmes' – who's the most consistent? If you can do that and still kick 56, 57, now you're All-Pro."
Gay showed off his powerful leg as a rookie, making five of eight tries from beyond 50 yards, with a long of 58. However, two of his eight misses came in the 30-range, including a 34-yarder that could have won the Bucs' Week Three contest against the New York Giants at the end of regulation. Gay was also 43 of 48 on extra point tries, which are now equivalent to 33-yard field goals.
In an effort to be as consistent as possible, Gay modified his kicking technique a bit during the offseason. The COVID-19 quarantine made it difficult for him to practice his new approach with a live snap and holder, but he's working on that now and can see the effects as camp has progressed.
"Just taking the new kicking technique that I'm using and getting used to it with snap and hold, a line in front of you and live [reps]," said Gay. "It's been good. I feel more and more comfortable every day.
"[I] just shortened it up a little bit – simplified some things, less room for error. Some things that are more repeatable [and] more consistent that I can draw on every day, rep after rep. Just getting more used to it [and] getting more and more confident each and every day."
Gay did not modify his form specifically to be more accurate on short kicks. Rather, he wants there to be no difference in his approach no matter where the ball is placed for the attempt.
"No, and definitely there shouldn't be," said Gay. "Every kick should be the same. Keith Armstrong, our special teams coach, he puts that on repeat in your head: Every single kick should be the same. Whether it's a PAT in the first quarter or a 56-yard game winner, you should take the same approach. And that's something I've really tried to apply this offseason, just making sure a lot of those changes I made, technique-wise, that that kick is able to be repeatable."
Gay did not get a free pass to a second year on the job in Tampa, as the Buccaneers brought in Fry in May to serve as competition. Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong recently called that competition "real close," and Arians acknowledged on Sunday that the team had given tryouts to a couple other kickers. As to whether any new legs would join the competition, Arians just said, 'We'll see." Gay, who won a battle with incumbent Cairo Santos last summer, has no problem with the team looking at multiple options.
"Competition is the baseline of the NFL," he said. "Everybody's fighting for a job and if you don't perform, someone's right there ready behind you, ready to take your spot. It's no news to me that guys are in here competing for a shot and they're going to bring competition in. Competition is going to breed success and I think the potential of our team this year is super-high, and I think the kicking position is very important. I think, obviously, they're going to look for who they can feel confident going into the season with. If I come in and do my thing and do my part, I feel confident in myself – and take care of what I'm doing – that that will be me going into the season."