K Matt Bryant knows his 53-yarder is going through the uprights, buying his team an extra hour before curfew Tuesday night
Matt Bryant called it: Double or nothing. Jon Gruden nodded. The potential payoff was huge, at least in the eyes of Bryant's 90 Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates.
Gruden, the Bucs head coach, wants to see his kickers perform under pressure. On Tuesday morning, on the penultimate day of the team's 2005 training camp, kicker Matt Bryant requested the biggest pressure kick of camp. It wasn't on the practice script tucked into Gruden's shorts, but it proved to be better than the original ending.
This was the scene on the West field out behind the Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. Before Tuesday morning's field goal session, just after the team had come back from its cool-down period, Gruden drew all the players up around him and kickers Bryant and Todd France.
This particular drill was going to carry some added incentive for the entire team, a ploy meant to jangle the kickers' nerves as they lined up for a series of field goals from 43, 45 and 47 yards out. If Bryant and France combined to make every kick, the whole team would get an extra hour before curfew that evening.
"Maybe an hour of curfew is not enough incentive to make your kicks, but to some of these guys you would think it's like winning the lottery," Gruden would say later. "You just try to simulate pressure. You can't kick field goals sometimes even in a game, in a preseason game. So you'd better find out as much as you can about your kicker on the practice field."
Bryant went first and banged home kicks of 43 and 45 yards. He was clearly on, pushing the ball an extra 10 or 15 yards beyond what was necessary. France took the third kick, calmly hitting it from 47 yards out. Bryant came back to make the fourth field goal, another 43-yarder. On the third and fourth kicks, punter Josh Bidwell impressively pulled down high snaps to get the ball on the ground in time, earning grateful cheers from his teammates.
Then France came out for the last kick, with that golden hour still up for grabs. Unfortunately, for only about the second time in the last nine days, France missed, pulling his 45-yarder wide left. Amid moans of disappointment, Bryant thought fast, aggressively asking for a shot from 55 yards out, double-or-nothing (though it's unclear if a miss would have moved curfew up an hour). Gruden wasn't completely sure that would send the right message. And, in fact, he allowed the kick as a challenge for Bryant but did not, in the end, grant the extra hour.
"Bryant wanted a double-or-nothing opportunity," said Gruden. "There are no do-overs [in games]. You can ask this football team over the last couple of years. You've got to make your kicks when you get in a pressure situation, that's just the way this league is set up."
But Bryant was adamant that he wanted the pressure kick, and Gruden allowed it.
It was an interesting scenario, given that France had finally missed a kick and Bryant was trying to save the situation for his teammates. Bryant was probably the favorite to win the job coming into training camp, based on his greater NFL game experience. However, he had struggled a bit early and France, coming off a record-breaking NFL Europe campaign, had gone on a tear. Bryant began to match him kick for kick over the last week, but it was fair to say that France had taken a bit of a lead in the competition.
Of course, the kickers have known all along that there was a long way to go in the competition, and his early struggles hadn't bothered Bryant, who made 80% of his tries for the New York Giants in 2002-03.
"In the beginning, everybody wanted to get worried, everybody wanted to come down on me a little bit," he said. "But you've got to believe in number one, and that's me. I knew it was no big deal; it was going to come around. You've just go out there and approach every day like a professional, and just know that each day is a new day. You can't fall back on the day before."
France and Bryant had each made their only field goal attempts in Friday night's preseason opener at Tennessee, with Bryant's 33-yarder winning it in overtime. In practice, both kickers had recently performed well with the rest of the team standing around screaming at them, and both had responded well to hurry-up periods in which they had to rush onto the field and make a kick.
Still, it was fair to say that this kick Bryant was lining up for was one of the toughest of camp. Not only was it from 53 yards out (that's where the ball was actually spotted, though Bryant had called for a 55-yarder), but it was his own challenge, and - even though the hour wasn't granted - he felt as if he were doing it for the whole team. In that way, it was much like a big kick at the end of a game.
"If you see the ball snapped and put down on the ground and the protection is there, the kicker writes the check for the football team," said Gruden. "Our lives are in his hands in that situation. That's just the way it is. His position, the characteristics that it has, are a lot different, I think, than anyone else on the team."
The snap by Brian Sawyer was good, the hold by Josh Bidwell was pristine and Bryant – as you might have guessed from the all the build up – nailed it. Fifty-three yards bought the team a coveted 60 minutes. Bryant was mobbed by his teammates as the kick sailed over the crossbar. The Bucs want to see scenes like that on Sunday afternoons, after two years of too many big kicks going awry.
"There's nothing like knowing on the sideline, after you put together a drive to put yourself in position to win a game in the fourth quarter, that this guy's an assassin," said Gruden. "He's going to put that ball right between your eyes. It's a great sense of confidence that the offensive team has, it's a great sense of confidence that the defense has. 'Hey, let's get the ball back because this kid will win us the game.' You've got to have that."
Maybe Bryant helped his chances with that kick. France will get more opportunities to fire back, as the battle is far from over. Gruden continues to voice his pleasure with the team's kicking, and he does so by complimenting both men.
"We've got four weeks yet – three weeks, whatever it is – to evaluate that," said Gruden. "I'd say this: I like what they're doing. We chart everything from get-off time to hang time to accuracy. We chart everything, and their statistics are impressive here in the last nine days, very impressive. We've got a tough call to make. Hopefully, that is the case at the very end."
Another New Lineman
For the second time in two days and the fifth time since training camp began on July 28, the Bucs have added an offensive lineman to the roster. On Tuesday, the Bucs signed former San Diego Chargers starter Phil Bogle, releasing rookie running back Jacque Lewis to make room on the roster.
The 6-2, 322-pound Bogle, a guard, is the second interior lineman added this week. On Monday, the Bucs signed second-year guard/center Bryan Anderson, most recently of the New England Patriots.
Like Anderson, Bogle entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He was an immediate hit in Chargers camp, impressing with his balance and foot quickness. Despite coming from Division II New Haven (enrollment: 1,800), he not only made the roster as a rookie but ended up playing in 15 games and starting 13 at guard.
Bogle was released on the final cut in 2004, however, though he later was resigned to the roster for two weeks in late September. After the season, he signed with the Cleveland Browns but was released on July 29.
Anderson and Bogle follow earlier O-Line signings (or re-signings) of tackles Sam Lightbody, Todd Steussie and Jeff Hatch.
Lewis first signed with the Bucs on May 17 as an undrafted rookie. He was released last Wednesday but then re-signed on Thursday, and he played briefly in the opener at Tennessee.