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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Royals Treatment

The Buccaneers' Mark Royals is a rare NFL commodity: an outstanding punter who is also a team leader


Veteran P Mark Royals' has posted his four best single-season punting averages in the last five years

Two point three seconds is not a lot of time to think.

So Mark Royals doesn't.

In the time it takes an NFL football to travel from the snapper's palm to the punter's hands, then to his foot and safely off it, Royals doesn't bother thinking about the situation too much.

This might come as a surprise to those who knows Royals, the kind of guy you can look at and see the wheels spinning mischeviously behind his eyes. This is your typical locker-room prankster, the one who tries to make teammates laugh during interviews or tapes up their lockers - call it the Royals Treatment. This is the player who has invented seemingly hundreds of games to pass the idle times punters and kickers inevitably run into during practice.

This is also a man who serves as player representative for his team, and a professional who is already planning a post-NFL broadcasting career.

In short, this is not a fellow who puts his brain into neutral very often. But, as he has learned over 13 NFL seasons, if the preparation is good, the body will perform when called upon. So, even when the rare fake punt is called and he has to pass the ball downfield, he doesn't let his usually active brain mess it up.

"It's funny," said Royals. "The times that we do (run a fake), I'm not sure that we're really going to do it until just before it actually happens. I don't really have time to think about it, and as odd as it may sound – punting, too – the less I think about what I'm doing the better off I am.

"I know that sounds kind of weird, but I just try to take my mind out of the picture. I prepare my body to do a certain thing and if I just don't add the stress of thinking about it too much, I'm able to perform better."

Weird – now there's a word you've probably seen associated with kickers and punters before, but Royals bucks the stereotype by being a respected presence in the Bucs' locker room. What is weird is that the Buccaneers have a punter who is also a team leader.

"I look at my situation and I feel like it's much more than being a punter," said Royals. "My relationship with (young kicker) Martin (Gramatica), I believe, is important to the overall success of the team. Some of the younger guys that are trying to find their way in the league, I can offer experience to them.

"I'm a player rep for the team, guys come to me with problems. I think that's important. You have free agency now, and with so many guys switching teams, I think it's important to have some experience on a team. That way, guys have somebody to turn to. I feel like I offer that, and I hope guys see it that way."

Indeed, if you give the Bucs' roster a hard shake to sort it by a variety of categories, the six-foot-five Royals is usually near the top, and not just when you're ranking by height. He has 12 seasons of accrued NFL experience; only venerable guard Randall McDaniel has more, at 13.

At 35, Royals is also the second-oldest player on the team, again one behind the 36-year-old McDaniel. Royals has played in 178 NFL games. McDaniel is the team leader at 206, but nobody else on the squad is within 40 of the long-time punter. Royals has been around long enough to claim Gary Anderson, the NFL's all-time scoring leader, as the man who taught him the ropes early in his career, when both were with Pittsburgh.

There is little doubt that this veteran presence is part of the reason the Bucs have become rather attached to Royals, even in the later stages of his career.

"Mark is a veteran guy who has been through a lot," said Dungy. "He understands the important things. A lot of our guys look up to him because he has been in the league so long."

Don't get the wrong idea. Royals' could possess the leadership qualities of Norman Schwarzkopf, but he wouldn't be heading into his third consecutive Buc season if he couldn't still put a little air under the ball. With experience has come not only the ability to lead but a few extra yards on his kicks.

Some time this year or next, Royals will blast the 1000th punt of his long and successful NFL tenure. He owns a career gross punting average of 42.3 yards per boot and has recorded 232 punts inside the 20 versus just 83 touchbacks.

Of the 12 single-season gross averages he has posted in the NFL, the four best have each come in the last five years. While Royals has never been invited to the Pro Bowl, you can certainly argue that he should have been in 1997 and 1998 when, while playing for New Orleans, he led the NFC twice and the NFL once in punting.

So what the Bucs have is a punter with experience and an explosive leg. That he is kicking better in his later seasons gives the team little incentive to turn over the position to a younger hand, as it did with Gramatica in the kicker's spot two years ago.

"When you do something long enough, you start to get more confident that you can do it better," said Royals. "Later in my career, I've been in good situations where I've felt the most comfortable, from the coach I've had to the snapper I've worked with. A lot of things have to work out for you in order for a situation to be right, and I've been in good situations later in my career. More than anything, it's the confidence in knowing what it takes to get prepared for the season and how to stay strong for the whole season. It's just confidence."

Here's where you get to the other stereotype-busting aspect of the Bucs' punter. Virtually every day during the 2001 offseason, Royals has been found in the team's weight room, strengthening not only his leg but other body parts one wouldn't assume were vital to his job. Royals doesn't know how his rigorous training compares to other punters, but one expects it puts him in the upper percentile.

"That's all I've ever known," he said. "I've always felt that the better shape I was in overall, the better I could do my job. Just because I was a punter didn't mean I didn't need to have overall physical strength. And, two, as I progress in my career, it just makes sense to me that the stronger I stay – flexibility, strength and being in shape – the better I can do my job. It just makes sense to me.

"I don't buy into the age thing, that you have to start slumping as you get older. Obviously, if you're ever 45, things are going to start changing, but I don't see why, if I train as hard as I can to prepare, just because I'm getting older doesn't mean I can't perform at a higher level anymore. I don't buy into that."

See? Here we have one of those lessons Royals can pass on to his younger teammates. There is always a fresh wave of players looking to take a veteran's job, and the best way to keep them at bay is to work harder. One couldn't blame a punter, in particular, if the prospect of roster turnover was always on his mind. These days, The NFL seems to be in a constant state of punter flux, as some teams decide they have to get cheaper at that spot and others decide they want to pay whatever it takes to fix past problems. For every Tennessee that wants to give Craig Hentrich a lucrative contract to remove any punting doubts, there's a Green Bay that thinks it can get nearly the same results for a lot less.

"It's always going to be that way, as teams may think they want to get somebody for a lesser amount of money," acknowledged Royals. "But what it boils down to then is a commitment from the team. Are they willing to take a chance on someone who's unproven? You look how close the league is nowadays. If you're in a critical situation, I think teams feel more comfortable knowing they have somebody who can handle the pressure. You lose one game because of something like that, it could mean your whole season."

Do the Bucs understand this? Well, isn't this the team that lost the division title and playoff home field advantage last season thanks to a missed field goal in the season finale at Green Bay?

That miss by Gramatica was, as every last person in the organization will tell you, a terribly mistimed fluke. The team could hardly have more confidence in their young Pro Bowl kicker, whose exploits against the Dolphins, Vikings, Falcons and, earlier in the season, the Packers helped put the Bucs in position to win the NFC Central at the end. Still, the lesson is there and the Buccaneers want to have confidence in their punter and kicker. With Royals and Gramatica, the two go hand in hand.

"They talk quite a bit," said Dungy of his specialists. "They train together. Mark was able to explain to Martin how things were going to be that first year, and he's felt very comfortable with that. Now, they're like one unit."

One comedy unit, at times in the locker room and on the practice field. Royals likes to have fun, and he's been around long enough to appreciate that he's free to do so.

"It's wonderful to be able to call what we do a job," he said. "But I love the game, I love the camaraderie of the players.

"It's just fun. It's interesting to begin with when you have the different cultures represented in the locker room. You're learning to understand people and where they're from and what makes them tick, and you're trying to create a bond with people from different walks of life to work toward a common goal of winning a championship.

"There's no reason you can't have fun along the way. That's just my nature. That's my personality. The job that I have allows me to do that."

And the job that he has done allows him to keep it.

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