Three years worth of clutch kicks has given the Bucs total confidence in K Martin Gramatica
Tony Dungy's decision with 6:34 left in Sunday's game in Paul Brown Stadium showed remarkable confidence in Martin Gramatica, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-year kicker.
His Bucs were leading, 13-3 midway through the final period, but they faced a fourth-and-nine from the Cincinnati Bengals' 32-yard line. Kick a field goal and try to run the lead to 16-3? Or punt and present a long field to the Bengals' offense, which had managed a total of 62 yards and four first downs in its last seven drives?
Dungy chose to kick, asking Gramatica to hit a 51-yarder. If you second-guessed that decision, you're not alone. Dungy seemed to do so himself after the game.
"Offensively, we moved the ball but couldn't finish off our drives and just made the crucial mistake at the wrong time," he said. "I had a couple judgment errors where we gave up some field position trying to do some things we probably shouldn't have."
Gramatica did not come particularly close to making the long kick and the Bengals were given the gift of field position, starting at their own 41. A short field goal drive and a stunning touchdown march to follow allowed the Bengals to take the game into overtime.
What bothered Dungy about the decision after the game was the field position and the condition of the field itself. What did not bother him was Gramatica's miss from 43 yards out earlier in the game.
Nor was Dungy worried about Gramatica's 25-yard wide-left fluke last Monday in St. Louis, or the 48-yarder that hit the upright at the buzzer two weeks ago against Chicago. Two and a half seasons of clutch kicking from the former Kansas State standout have given Dungy an unshakeable faith in his kicker, perhaps even to a fault, as evidenced by that ill-advised, 51-yard try.
"He doesn't usually miss field goals," said Dungy. "We knew (Cincinnati kicker Neil) Rackers had not had a great percentage, and you can see why now. The field (at Paul Brown Stadium) is re-sodded in the middle and it's tough footing. I think any kickers coming in here, to kick consistently is probably pretty tough. Martin missed one he normally doesn't miss, but there was no doubt in my mind what we were going to do when we got the ball back at the three-yard line."
And that's the bottom line for Dungy. Gramatica's final story on Sunday was told not by the two misses – the first time he has misfired twice in the same game as a pro - but by the 21-yard game-winner he made in overtime. The Bucs had a first down at the four but did not even contemplate trying to score a touchdown before letting Gramatica win it.
In turn, Gramatica's belief in himself never wavered, which is crucial for a kicker.
"I always try to have my confidence up," he said in the locker room after the victory. "You can't go in there and doubt yourself. That's when everything goes bad. You can't doubt yourself. I have to be confident, no matter what."
Until he puts together another one of his streaks of 10 or so successes in a row, as he has done four times already in less than three seasons, Gramatica will have to deal with questions about a slump in the coming weeks. In truth, he has yet to have a true slump as a pro. He has made 81.1 percent of his 90 field goal tries as a Buccaneer, has delivered on nearly every clutch kick and is even above .500 from beyond 50 yards (8-14).
Still, he has never before missed four times in a seven-kick span, and thus he's not quite used to the pain an NFL kicker can feel.
"I'm experiencing it to the fullest right now, the ups and downs," said Gramatica. "Luckily, we got two wins in a row, but I just haven't been kicking the ball like I want to. Like I tell everybody, the bottom line is that we win. I'm going to do everything I can to get back to where I was. As long as the kicks don't cost us a win, I'm happy about that, but I want to get the ball through the uprights."