Tight end Ryan Purvis should be well-prepared for his very first regular-season game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed him to the active roster on Monday. After all, Purvis has been practicing with the team since May.
Purvis was promoted from the Buccaneers' practice squad in order to fill one of the two open roster spots created when Earnest Graham and Jimmy Wilkerson were placed on injured reserve. The other spot has yet to be filled but likely will have a new occupant before practice begins on Wednesday.
Players come and go on any NFL team's practice squad, but Purvis is the only man who spent each of the first 16 weeks of the 2009 season on Tampa Bay's eight-man crew. Of course, several of the players who began the season on the Bucs' practice squad with Purvis were previously promoted, too, such as running back Kareem Huggins, tackle James Lee and, most recently, wide receiver Mario Urrutia.
The 6-4, 260-pound Purvis signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College on May 2. He played in all four Buccaneer preseason games and finished with five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. His leaping catch of a 14-yard scoring pass from quarterback Josh Johnson against Houston in the preseason finale brought Tampa Bay within one touchdown of the lead with eight minutes left in the game, though Houston was able to hold on for a 27-20 win. Purvis also caught a pass on a two-point conversion against Tennessee.
At Boston College, Purvis played in 51 games with 31 starts and racked up 113 receptions for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks fourth on the Eagles' all-time receptions list among tight ends and was a second-team All-ACC choice as a senior in 2008.
Kicking for the Future
From the never-ending well of surprising notes that is the Bucs' upset of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday comes another one:
With Micheal Spurlock's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers are now the only team in the NFL to have scored on both a kickoff and a punt return in each of the last two seasons. Sammie Stroughter turned in a 97-yard kickoff return against Carolina earlier this season, and Clifton Smith handled both ends of the double-dip last season as a rookie en route to the Pro Bowl.
That's just another highlight in a season of impressive outings for the Buccaneers' special teams, which have consistently played at a high level in almost every category. Tampa Bay, for instance, has blocked four kicks this season, scored on one of them, covered kickoffs better than any team in the league and averaged a league-best 26.7 yards per kickoff return.
The Bucs do rank 28th in the NFL in gross punting average, but given that former Pro Bowler Josh Bidwell and his first replacement, Dirk Johnson, were both lost to season-ending injuries, that seems forgivable. The one area on special teams that was a problem for a good portion of the year, however, was placekicking.
With Mike Nugent and then Shane Andrus handling the kicking duties for the first seven weeks of the season, the Bucs made only two of their first seven field goal tries, with a long make of 37 yards. However, a solution was found at midseason, and it's one that could extend beyond 2009.
That solution has been Connor Barth, who has made a respectable 13 of 18 field goal tries since his arrival in Week Eight. That success rate of 72.2% still only ranks 13th out of the top 16 scoring kickers in the NFC, but in such a small sample size those numbers lose a little meaning. Barth is only one more make away from being at 78%, for instance, and only two from being at 83%.
More importantly, Barth has shown steely nerves in clutch situations, which is obviously crucial in the long run. His first real test was in Miami, where he tied an NFL record by making three field goals of 50 or more yards in the same game to help the Bucs stay in a close contest until the very end. Then, on Sunday in New Orleans, Barth calmly nailed a 47-yarder in overtime to give the Buccaneers a stunning 20-17 upset of the previously 13-1 Saints.
The Bucs showed confidence in Barth when they reached the New Orleans 35 and then ran three straight times rather than risking a throw or two to get him closer to the uprights. Barth repaid that confidence by blasting a line drive kick that made up in distance and accuracy what it lacked in the classic arc. The Superdome crowd was shaking the walls with their high-decibel cheering, and a miss would have put the Saints not far from field goal position of their own, but Barth didn't let any of the atmosphere affect him.
"That's mental toughness, man," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It wasn't noisy for long. He nailed that thing and it got quiet really quickly. It was a beautiful silence. It was awesome, to have that kind of toughness to stand in there and deliver. He got froze on one of his kicks earlier and went out and made two in a row. It looked like practice. It was nice."
Barth said all 11 men on the field executed their jobs perfectly, contributing to the successful kick.
"It was just a good opportunity," he said. "It's a team effort. We just got an opportunity to go out there and put it through and I'm happy to do it. You can't say enough about the hold, the snap and the guys blocking for me, because without them it wouldn't happen. It came out a little low but with the great protection it didn't matter. It was a great, great feeling."
The Buccaneers obviously don't want to head into 2010 with any hint of the uncertainty at kicker that has dogged them in 2009. Matt Bryant had held down the job for the previous four years, and in the offseason the Buccaneers had sought to ensure the strength of the position by bringing in former New York Jet Mike Nugent to compete with Bryant. The competition never materialized in training camp due to nagging injuries for Bryant, and Nugent failed to capitalize on the job that was his by default.
So, has Barth done enough in his half-season audition to make him a solid candidate to hold on to the job in 2010?
"I've got to say yes to that question," said Morris. "All he's done is come in here and make a couple field goals for us and really be consistent. He missed a couple, but for the most part he's been banging them. He had the big three-50-yard-field-goal day; yesterday he kicked the game-winner against the New Orleans Saints. He's pretty much been pretty consistent all year. You've definitely got to take him into consideration for the future. He's a young kicker with a strong leg."