For Ryan Succop, 2019 was not the easiest season of his NFL career, which has now spanned 12 seasons with three teams. As it turned out, 2020 didn't start out much better (join the club, right?). But it took a very hard turn for the better in September and that has definitely continued into 2021.
Succop was not on an NFL roster when the calendar flipped to September. Five months later, he's about to play in his first Super Bowl as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' placekicker.
"It's been an amazing year," said Succop on Tuesday, five days before his Bucs are scheduled to face his original NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in Super Bowl LV. "I'm very blessed to be here, obviously. Some of things I went through last year in Tennessee were really difficult. There was certainly some adversity. Any time you try to come back from an injury and you don't come back the way that you want to, it can be frustrating. Probably one of the cool things of that is that, often times in my life or in football, when you go through some adversity a lot of times you grow as a person."
Between his five years in Kansas City and his arrival in Tampa, Succop played six seasons with the Tennessee Titans and five of them were quite good. From 2014-18, he made 116 of his 134 field goal tries; that 86.6% success rate ranked seventh among all kickers who had at least 100 attempts in that span. Then came the adversity Succop references in the form of a knee injury. He had surgery after the 2018 season and was declared physically unable to perform when training camp started in 2019. He returned to practice in the third week of August but was then placed on injured reserve to start the regular season.
Cairo Santos, who had previously kicked for both the Chiefs and Buccaneers, got the job to start the season in Tennessee but made only four of nine tries and was released in favor of Cody Parkey. Parkey made his three tries across two games but was let go when Succop was deemed ready to return from injured reserve. However, Succop clearly was not back to full strength and he made only one of six field goal attempts before heading back to injured reserve. The Titans cut him in March, just before the start of free agency.
View pictures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl LV media day.
By this point, 2020 was going badly for a lot of people thanks to the rising COVID-19 pandemic. In practical terms for Succop that meant closed gyms just as he lost his access to the Titans' facilities. Fortunately, his friend, teammate and close neighbor, former Buccaneers tight end Luck Stocker, let him use the gym in his house. Still nobody in the NFL called until the Bucs reached out with a visit and tryout at the very end of August. Tampa Bay was concerned about the inconsistent kicking of second-year man Matt Gay and wanted to bring in a proven veteran to compete. Succop officially signed with Tampa Bay on September 1 and won the job over the course of just a handful of practices.
"It's something where I think it's helped mature me as a person," said Succop of his 2019-21 journey. "I think I've grown in my faith through that and it's been amazing just to see how the Lord has healed me and has brought me to a great situation here in Tampa and allowed me to work with a lot of great teammates and a lot of great coaches. To have an opportunity to be here is something I'm very grateful for."
The Bucs wanted consistency and they got it. Succop made 28 of his 31 field goal attempts for a success rate of 90.3% that ranks as the second-best of his 12 NFL seasons and the second-best ever by a Buccaneers kicker. At one point from Weeks Four through 15 he made 21 in a row, nearly breaking another Tampa Bay record. In the playoffs, he is eight-for-eight so far, and if you add his regular season and postseason totals together he is 36 of 39 for a 92.3% success rate that nearly matches Connor Barth's 2011 team record of 92.9%.
"He's a true professional," said Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong. "You can't ask for more. He's committed, he's a true pro, he brings all the other guys along with him and it's not with his mouth, it's by demonstration. He's a true leader. He's a serious guy, takes his profession very seriously. He's a pleasure because he's the same guy every day, a true pro. Really a pleasure to be around."
As the last pick in the 2009 draft, Succop got the honorary title of "Mr. Irrelevant," but he's far from that now as he prepares to take the NFL's biggest stage. In fact, he proved rather quickly that his draft-night title wasn't actually going to apply to his career. He won the Chiefs' job as a rookie and made 25 of his 29 field goal tries, tying the NFL's rookie record with a success rate of 86.2%. He would play five seasons in Kansas City and make 81.0% of his field goals before being supplanted by Santos. He also made all three of his field goal tries for the Chiefs in the 2013 playoffs and remains a perfect 12-for-12 in his postseason career. That his first shot at the Super Bowl not only comes at the end of a year that started out in difficult fashion in Tennessee but is against his first team makes the moment even more special.
"It's a tremendous honor to play in the Super Bowl," said Succop. "That's something that you dream about ever since you start playing football. I'm very, very thankful for that opportunity. It will be neat to play against my former team; I still have some friends on that team that I'm close with and I still know some of the coaches. I had a great experience in Kansas City. I had a great first five years of my career there, I'm very thankful for that time and it will be good to see some of those guys.
"After 12 years this is my first time getting to play in the big game and that's something I feel very blessed to be able to do."