K Matt Bryant hit this 52-yard try last Thursday against Houston, capping a strong preseason
Before his latest attempt to win an NFL placekicking job, Matt Bryant decided he needed a new approach.
Not a new approach to the ball; an 80% career field-goal kicker who generates surprising power from his 5-9 frame, Bryant felt fine about his mechanics.
What he needed was a new approach to his profession, to competition, to life in general. What he needed, simply, was to relax.
"This preseason, I changed things a little bit as far as my mindset," said Bryant, who was the New York Giants' kicker in 2002 and 2003. "Don't get caught up in too much. Just go out there, do your job and relax. I've been doing this since I was a little kid and it's like riding a bike. Just keep on riding it.
"There have been times when I've put too much on my plate mentally. I saw the difference in how I kicked when I relaxed. That's the thing I figured out: Just relax and everything tends to work out much better."
It took about a month for his theory to prove correct. Locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' kicking job with first-year man Todd France, Bryant had plenty of opportunities to stress out during training camp and the preseason. Instead, he focused on the next kick and let everything else fade into background noise.
"I've been in a situation like this before," he said. "You just go out there and do your job and let the chips fall where they fall."
A year ago, coincidentally, Bryant had battled France for the Giants job, one for which he was the two-year incumbent. Who knows which kicker won that head-to-head duel, because the Giants elected to release both Bryant and France and sign long-time NFL vet Steve Christie. Bryant didn't land anywhere long term during the 2004 season, though he pulled brief relief stints in Miami and Indianapolis due to injuries to Olindo Mare and Mike Vanderjagt.
That's another aspect of the NFL Bryant understands, that not all of his competition is on hand, and it's another reason not to let the daily ups and downs get to you.
"You realize how this profession works," he said. "You're kicking against 60 other guys, so to speak, because if neither of us was doing any good they could have brought somebody else in. The main thing is just to go do your job."
Bryant actually put his new approach to work almost immediately after the team reported to training camp in late July. About three days into camp, he hit a rough spot and spent a couple days missing the mark more than he was making it. He pulled out of it fairly quickly, but France, meanwhile, had started a hot streak. At one point, France made 31 straight field goals on the practice field.
Now, understand: Bryant doesn't look relaxed. While he does have the slow drawl of his native Bridge City, Texas, he also has an intense expression on his face at most times and he doesn't speak much during practice. But during those few rough days of camp, he was probably the only one untroubled by his struggles.
"There for a little bit I had a few bad days, and it seemed like, if you read into a lot of things, the world was coming to an end and the sun was not going to come up and everything else," he said. "But you've got to realize that you've got to put that day behind you and move on to the next day. It's just like everything else. The good, the bad…you learn from your mistakes. You learn from your good day and you learn from your bad day. It was just realizing what I did wrong this day and correcting it and having a better day."
On Saturday, the Buccaneers released France, who they now consider an NFL-ready kicker. They, too, could say that a few bad days at the beginning of camp did not define Bryant. After refusing to panic, Bryant had eventually completed a very strong camp and a near-perfect preseason. He made four of five field goal tries, missing from 53 yards but also hitting a 52-yarder, and consistently drove his kickoffs high and deep.
"Tough call, but in the end we felt like Matt Bryant deserved to be here and that's why we made the pick," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "The bottom line was, we graded everything and his kicks were good, his kickoffs were good, his consistency was good and he gets the ball up in a hurry. He's just a guy who we think is a good kicker."
The Bucs liked France, too. Had Bryant's stumbles been more frequent, the team certainly had a comfortable option. But Bryant never let the competition with France get to him.
"I try not to look at it that way," he said. "The main thing I tried to stay focused on was just doing my job."
And in so doing, he kept it.