P Mark Royals, who has to maintain his focus for just six or seven big plays a game, says he is 'thinking very clearly' right now
Mark Royals makes more news when he does nothing than when he does his job perfectly.
Last week, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rolled over the previously-undefeated Minnesota Vikings, 41-13, Royals sat and watched. Okay, he did serve as the holder for two field goals and five extra points, but the Bucs' punter never once was called on for his signature task.
That is news, because a game in which you don't need your punter is a game of rare offensive efficiency. When you do need your punter, you want him to go unnoticed. Like kickers, punters draw much more attention when they fail.
Had Royals been called on to do his part against the Vikings, we can say with almost complete certainty that he would have done it well. It's risky to make such a pronouncement about a professional athlete of any caliber, but Royals has been so consistently excellent in a Buccaneer uniform that anything else would be a surprise.
Royals is averaging 44.7 yards per punt, second-best in the conference and a full yard better than the third-place punter. He is doing so despite having no punt longer than 57 yards and only three longer than 51. What that means is he has almost never whiffed – or 'shanked' as the pejorative punting term goes – and put his team in trouble with a 25-yard boot.
Since week four, Royals has not averaged less than 45 yards a punt in any Buc game. Chances for a punter are relatively infrequent, compared to say 30 passes for a quarterback or 20 carries for a running back, meaning the pressure should be higher. Why hasn't that affected Royals?
"I don't know what I can attribute that to, other than that I'm thinking really clearly," he said. "I know what I need to do. I practice harder during the week. I feel good physically, and I anticipate that those things are going to happen. I always try to think positively; I don't really spend too much time thinking about pressure or negative things. I'm a real positive kind of guy, just my whole life I think positively. I guess it's starting to show up on the field."
Indeed, Royals is virtually always upbeat and approachable in the Bucs' locker room, even a bit of a prankster. He spends the down moments in practice entertaining sidekick kicker Martin Gramatica with a never-ending array of games and diversions. He just seems…relaxed.
"I think with anything you do, the more you do it, the more comfortable you become at it," said Royals. "I think at this point in my career, my confidence and experience are probably at an all-time high. I just feel like, whenever I'm out there on the field that I can get the job done.
"I think that's probably due to the fact that I've been through so much in my career. The environment that I'm in is a very good environment. I play for a coach that I feel is very comfortable with what I'm trying to do. I feel real confident in the guys that are around me, from Mo (Unutoa) snapping the ball to the guys that are blocking and covering."
Royals is equally pleased with what his coaches are trying to do. By stressing defense and the need to shorten the field for the offense, the Bucs have placed a premium on field position. That means the NFL platitude you hear from coast-to-coast – 'Special Teams are important' – is given much more than lip service in Tampa.
"I think here it's really different, and it shows up on the field," said Royals. "First of all, in practice, the amount of time that's devoted to special teams. You hear a lot of people – a lot of teams that I've been with before – stress the importance of it. But then, why don't we practice it more? Why is it not given equal time, based on how important you say it is? There's definitely importance placed on it here, and I think it's due to the brand of football we play in Tampa."
In 1999, Royals first season in his second stint with the Buccaneers (he also kicked for Tampa Bay in 1990 and '91), the 12-year NFL veteran broke the team record with a gross average of 43.1 yards per punt. He's well above that number halfway through 1999, but not outside the parameters of his career. For the Saints in 1997-98, Royals led the NFC in gross punting average for two straight years, chalking up a 45.9 in '97 and a 45.6 in '98. His run of excellence has become so extended that the question of how long the 35-year-old expects to continue playing comes quickly to mind.
"A lot of people ask me that – how long I'd like to play and that type of thing," said Royals. "In reality, the way I try to approach it is, I'm going to try to get through this Sunday. If I perform well this Sunday, then I'll worry about next Sunday. As far as trying to predict what may happen in the future, I think that life deals us so many uncertainties that, because I may want to play five more years that doesn't necessarily mean it will be the case. I just try to take it each week.
"That's very cliché-ish, I know, but it's so true in my profession. It's a week-to-week thing for me. If I play well enough during the course of this season for some team to want me to continue to play, then I'll continue to play."
Whether or not Royals chooses to look ahead or behind, consistent week-to-week performances are exactly what is defining his career. One almost expects every punt to travel exactly 50 yards (and less than 12 hours after this interview, Royals hit four punts in Atlanta: 50, 45, 52, 46). Confident, loose, Royals is still a realist about the possibility of an eventual slump.
"I think every player in any sport goes through stages where they're not performing the way they would like to," he said. "As much as I hate to say it, there's going to be some bad punts in my future. That's just the way it is. You try to avoid that, but the fact of the matter is that you're going to have those times. The key, to try to maintain longevity in any sport, is to minimize those as much as you can. If you're in some time of slump, figure out a way to get out of it as quickly as possible."