Gramatica doesn't expect his follow-through to look the same on each kick, just the results
Put yourself in Martin Gramatica's shoes.
Yes, those two over there. No, they don't match … he's a kicker, remember? That's just something they do. Yeah, they're size six-and-a-half, at least for the kicking foot. Hey, this isn't your typical NFL behemoth we're talking about.
All right, forget it. Let's start over. Put yourself in Martin Gramatica's shoes, figuratively. Got it?
You've been in the National Football League just two seasons. Your first year, you set an all-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers' scoring record, becoming the first player in team history to hit triple digits in a single season (106, to be exact). Your second year, you shattered that record again, scoring 126. You nailed three field goals of 50 or more yards as a rookie, with a long of 53. You then blasted five such long-range shots in 2000, with a long of 55. You went somewhere a Tampa Bay kicker has never gone before: the Pro Bowl.
In two short years, you've convinced Buccaneer fans that you're the greatest kicker ever to don Tampa Bay togs. Where can you possibly go from there?
Well … down, actually.
If Tampa Bay's offense reaches the end zone slightly more efficiently in 2001 than it did in 2000, Gramatica's field goal chances are likely to go down, which could lower his overall scoring total. But that's irrelevant to the former Kansas State star. In Gramatica's mind, there's only one thing that needs to go down: misses.
"I don't really focus on personal records," he said. "I don't judge my season by those things, because I may not get as many chances. The only record I'd like to break is to keep getting my field goal percentage better. My goal is to go 100 percent, which, only Gary Anderson has done, right? That's what I aim for every year. If I only get 10 field goals and 30 extra points, that's not going to break the scoring record. But if I don't miss, that's the bottom line."
Gotta get those misses down. Misses don't sit well in the Gramatica cranium, particularly the one in the closing seconds of regulation during the 2000 season finale in Green Bay. The Bucs eventually lost that game and, as it turns out, a division title and a first-round bye.
"It makes me mad at myself, because I know I should have made that," said Gramatica. "I get mad when I see it on TV, because it's such an easy kick. Well, no kick is easy, but I should have made it. To this day, I look at the tape and I can't see what I did wrong. The ball just didn't take off from my foot right."
Gramatica's reaction to that rare miss has gradually evolved from bewilderment to anger. His teammates' reactions changed much more rapidly, starting off at the same place but shifting quickly to support. To a man, the locker-room reaction was: we wouldn't have traveled as far as we had without Martin.
Gramatica wants his misses to be surprising. Buc teammates were conditioned to expect a successful kick, conditioned by a 47-yard game-winner in the rain at Miami, a 55-yard fourth-quarter shot against Detroit, a 51-yard game-winner in the first go-around with Green Bay. A Gramatica miss on a big kick in the season's final moments? No one saw that coming. That's consistency. Gramatica wants it badly, and he's already got it.
"You want to be consistent, because a first-quarter kick might make the difference when you get to the fourth quarter," he said. "A miss in the fourth quarter, everyone remembers, like the Green Bay game. People still talk to me about it and bring it up all the time. If I had missed that in the first quarter, I don't think anybody would have said anything, but it would have had the same effect. I just want to be there when the team needs me the most, and that's usually the fourth quarter. That doesn't mean I don't put as much importance on the first-quarter kicks."
Distractions, lack of concentration. That's another thing Gramatica forces down each season. The native Argentinean has been a sports standout since he was a child, first as the big hitter on his soccer team. He focused early on a professional sports career, believed all along that was his calling. When he switched sports, he didn't switch his dream. From his first day of college at Kansas State, claims Gramatica, his goal was the NFL.
Pursuing that goal took focus, something he thought he had yet never truly discovered until he saw it temporarily taken away. Two days before the opening game of his junior season, Gramatica caught a cleat in the turf during a running drill and tore up his kicking (right) knee. He would miss the entire season while undergoing rehab.
But rehab taught him the virtues of a focused approach to weight training. He came back stronger than ever and, over two more college seasons, nailed 41 of 51 field goal tries, including an NCAA-record (for kicks without a tee) field goal of 65 yards.
"After the injury, I just appreciated every kick and focused more," said Gramatica. "It's not like I wasn't focused, but when you lose it all, you just appreciate every second, enjoy every second a lot more.
"I wasn't paying attention, I thought I was strong enough. But when we did the rehab, it was seven days a week. Sometimes they gave me Sunday off, sometimes I went straight through. I just wanted to make my legs as strong as possible. I didn't think weights would help, because I figured they would make me tight and slow. But when I combined it with running and stretching and kicking, it really did the trick.
"I wouldn't trade that experience now. My best years were my years after the knee injury. It turned out very good for me."
Indeed. Gramatica became that rare kicker who is coveted enough to be taken on the first day of the draft – the Bucs nabbed him with their third round pick to the surprise of many. In the professional ranks, he has become even more dedicated to weight training and health, in part because the Buccaneers' strength staff personally walks each player through his daily routine. Gramatica has also found the influence of veteran punter Mark Royals very useful in keeping him focused on his health.
"Mark and I work out together," said Gramatica. "He tells me that that's why he's still in the league, working out and keeping his body in shape. You also have to kick, but the more you take care of your body the longer you can kick."
Perhaps even more unusual, Gramatica does not put the same amount of focus into maintaining an exact field goal technique. With some kickers – say, Detroit's Jason Hanson – a video collection of their kicks would look like a looped film. Hanson's very exact approach and technique look virtually the same every time.
Not so for Gramatica.
"My timing comes pretty natural from soccer," he explained. "Coach (Joe) Marciano and I look at tape, but my technique varies from kick to kick. It's not that I do it on purpose, it's just natural. Some days I follow through quite a bit, some days I don't. With some kickers, it's exact every single time. With me, as long as it goes through, I don't care what it looks like. That's the bottom line, I guess."
That doesn't mean he lacks his own style of kicking. At 5-8, 170 pounds, even with his strength built up through training, Gramatica doesn't have the luxury of kicking just with his leg. He tries to get his whole body involved.
"I can't just use my leg strength, I have to use my momentum," he said. "That's why my approach is so much faster than most. Some of the big guys in the league take a slow approach and just use their legs, but I've got to use every single inch."
Gramatica also uses a slight aiming trick that helps his accuracy. Because he is much more susceptible to movement from right to left (picture a hook in golf), he aims a bit to the right of center when he's attempting a normal kick. If the try is from 50 yards or beyond, he aims at the right upright. He sees little point in trying to correct for a 'push', like the one that got him in Green Bay. "The way I look at it, if I push it, I'm going to miss it even if I aim left," he said.
You might expect that a loose approach to technique would make a slump more difficult to shake, but Gramatica disagrees and has yet to run into that problem. Actually, the only professional slump we can use to evaluate was the one he admits to suffering during last year's preseason. He missed his first three kicks that August before finishing with four makes in a row. Gramatica claims the problem was in his head, not his feet.
"I pretty much know what happened," he said. "I missed the first two kicks of the year, and then I went out there trying not to miss instead of just kicking it. I was just taking it a little easy just to make sure I made the kick. And that wasn't my kick, it wasn't me. It was mental, not physical. Luckily, I figured it out against Kansas City (the preseason finale)."
Before his epiphany, Gramatica had tried changing his routine, changing shoes, even changing his shoelaces. "Once I got over all that, I figured it out," he said. "I went back to my old shoes and went back to just kicking it."
After watching him convert on 27 of 32 kicks as an untested rookie in 1999, the Bucs' coaching staff was more than willing to let Gramatica work it out on his own.
"That's one thing I love about Coach Marciano," said Gramatica. "He knows that my background is soccer and it's pretty natural. He's not going to change anything. He knows my kicking varies a little bit but not tremendously. If he sees something that I'm doing very wrong, something that can throw me off later, he'll tell me and that helps."
Again, there hasn't been much need for corrections in Gramatica's game during his two-year NFL career. So far, he has connected on 55 of 66 field goal attempts, leading to an 83.3 success rate that is the best in team history. Though he has so far fallen short of Steve Christie's 1990 single-season record in that category (85.2%), he's obviously not missing by much. And he's been consistent: 27 of 32 as a rookie, 28 of 34 last year.
To Gramatica, though, that's 11 misses. That's the number. That number has to come down.