K Matt Bryant has been nearly flawless through four days of camp, and he wants to be perfect during the season
NFL placekickers aren't the most popular guys on most teams, they aren't hounded for autographs and they usually get yelled at not for, but where would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been last season, especially in games against divisional foe Atlanta, without Matt Bryant? Answer: most likely not 11-5 and NFC South champions.
Of the team's 11 wins last season, seven games were decided by five points or less, and two against Atlanta were ended by game-winning field goals, courtesy of Bryant's accurate leg. For the 2005 season, Bryant made 21-of-25 field goals, converted all 31 extra point attempts, tied his career high of four field goals in one game and even kicked a career-long 50-yard field goal. So far this training camp, he's connected on 14 of 15 attempts and looked as dependable as ever.
"It's going well," Bryant said after Monday morning's practice during which he finally and barely missed one, from 49 yards out. "I'm just trying to get it going from where I left off last year. I had a good year last year. It could have been better – I could have been perfect. This year that's my goal, to try to be perfect."
High expectations, yes, but not any higher than what fans expect of a kicker. In truth, it's one of the few positions in sports where a player is expected to be "on" 100 percent of the time and in the biggest of situations. If he is, the team can realize ultimate glory; just ask Adam Vinatieri. If he isn't, the player can experience the lowest of lows; just ask Scott Norwood.
Playing the kicker position is about leg strength, drive, elevation and consistency, but it begins with the right mindset, explained Bryant, who's been kicking field goals since he was seven years old. It's a thought process, he said, that requires blocking out any fear of failure and only focusing on the task at hand.
"For me, it's just to relax, to understand that I've been successful in the past," Bryant said. "In my mind, I'm a very successful kicker, and I will be a successful kicker. That's the mindset I've got to take into it. Just relax. Just stay with what got you here, and keep doing your best.
"It's just go out there and make the kick. You can't think about the negatives. That can eat you alive. You've got a job to do. You go out there – good snap, good hold – and do your job and make it a good kick, and everybody's happy. Then it's a good day all the around."
If last year was any indication, the Bucs will need plenty of good days from Bryant. Though the offense is expected to be more potent this season with quarterback Chris Simms entering his first full year as a starter, the fact remains that points are at a premium in the NFL, especially in the ultra-competitive NFC South.
In addition to the Bucs' number-one-ranked defense, the South boasts Carolina's third-ranked defense and an Atlanta D that is expected to be much improved with the acquisitions of defensive end John Abraham and safety Lawyer Milloy. Last year, the Bucs won their games by an average of little more than a touchdown and an extra point. It's not entirely impossible for that differential to decrease this year, underscoring the value of a consistent placekicker.
Fortunately, that's what the Bucs have.
"He's pretty good, isn't he?" asked Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Yeah, I like Matt Bryant. He's a football player more than a kicker. He's doing a great job. We've got a combination, a battery of [holder Josh] Bidwell and Bryant, and [long-snapper Dave] Moore helps too. That's a battery we're confident in, and [Bryant] is putting it right through the uprights, man. He's got a strong leg, he's getting the ball up quick. He's making field goals and kicking off well, so we're really happy with him."