K Martin Gramatica was back in a groove Thursday night, nailing four straight field goals, two from beyond 50 yards
Second-year kicker Martin Gramatica, who took the NFL by storm as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie in 1999, had started his sophomore season a bit slower, missing four field goals in the team's first five games.
There wasn't exactly concern over Gramatica's ups and downs, but the magic surrounding his NFL debut seemed to have temporarily lost some of its luster. After all, the third-round draft pick missed only five field tries all of last season en route to team records for field goals made (27) and points scored (106).
Well, it took a performance strongly reminiscent of one of his best days of 1999, but it appears that Gramatica is back in his groove. Last year, with the Bucs struggling to overcome Atlanta in a Raymond James Stadium grinder on November 21, the then-rookie calmly hit four field goals, including a 50-yarder with five minutes left that pulled the Bucs within one point of the Falcons, 10-9, and a 53-yarder with under a minute remaining to put Tampa Bay ahead. After a last-minute interception return for a touchdown by CB Donnie Abraham, the Bucs won 19-10.
The game outcome was different this Thursday against Detroit, of course, but Gramatica's efforts were very similar to that day last November. The Buc kicker finished each of the team's first two drives with field goals, hitting from 27 and 43 yards out to put Tampa Bay up 6-0.
In the second quarter, after Detroit had cut the lead to 8-3, Gramatica was brought on from even farther away and coolly drilled a 50-yarder between the uprights. It was his longest kick of the season, but not for long.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Bucs trailing 14-11 and stalled at the Detroit 37, the Bucs gambled and sent their hot kicker in to try a 55-yarder. Gramatica's kick barely deviated from the center of the uprights and hit halfway up the net behind the end zone. A miss would have left the Bucs down by three and given Detroit's offense the ball just shy of midfield, but Gramatica made the risk pay off by tying the game.
Dungy had no crisis of confidence about putting Gramatica into that crucial situation.
"He had a very good warmup last night and going that way (towards the south end zone), he really felt good," said Dungy. "He'd kicked a 50-yarder earlier and he felt like he could make it. When he's swinging well, he usually lets us know, so we felt he could make those."
Gramatica knew he had it going on Thursday, not that he generally tells Dungy that he isn't confident about a kick.
"He doesn't come out and say, 'No, I can't make it,' but he tells me where his limit is, where he thinks he can make it from, which hash he likes the ball on, that kind of thing," said Dungy of his communication with Gramatica. "Usually, when he says, 'It doesn't matter, I can make it from anywhere, any distance, any hash,' then you know he's feeling pretty good."
And so Gramatica was allowed to post the second four-field goal game of his short career and his second game with two shots of 50 or more yards. He now has a team-best 54 points on the season, which has him on pace to once again set the team record in that category. His current rate would lead to 123 points by the end of the regular season.
Gramatica's prolific early-career scoring has allowed him to shoot rapidly up the Bucs' all-time chart. With those 12 points against the Lions, he slipped past RB Errict Rhett into the team's top ten list of scorers, pushing his own total to 160, eight better than Rhett's 152. Gramatica needs just 45 more points this season to vault all the way into fifth place.
Gramatica is also quickly establishing himself as the best long-range bomber in team history. In just 23 career games, he has recorded nine of the 64 longest field goals in Buc annals, topped by his 55-yarder on Thursday. That kick ties for the second-longest ever by a Buccaneer, and the longest hit in front of the home crowd. Michael Husted's 57-yarder against the Raiders in 1993 is the team record and Donald Igwebuike had a 55-yarder versus Minnesota in 1986. The previous long in a home game for the Buccaneers was a pair of 54-yarders, one by Husted against Minnesota in 1993 and one by Steve Christie against Detroit in 1990.
Judging from the ease in which Gramatica nailed his two kicks from beyond 50 yards on Thursday, the young and enthusiastic kicker is bound to leave his name imprinted all over the Bucs record books. He certainly made his mark in the Lions game, as did several other segments of the Bucs' special teams. Remarkably, Tampa Bay has blocked five kicks in its last five games, three punts and two field goals. They got one of each against Detroit, with rookie LB Nate Webster blocking a first-quarter punt and DE Marcus Jones redirecting a third-quarter field goal.
Two blocked kicks in a single game is particularly rare, and Dungy agreed that the Detroit contest was the Bucs' best of the year from a special-teams standpoint.
"Well, it probably is," he conceded. "We still had a couple of breakdowns. We had the one mis-hit kickoff that kind of line-drived down there, and then Martin got the penalty on it, which let them start in good field position. The punting game was about as good as it can be, pinning (return man Desmond) Howard to the sideline. We blocked a field goal, blocked a punt, so overall it was a pretty good day."
Mark Royals handled the negation of Howard, who came into the game as the NFC's leading punt returner, by angling high kicks that came down very near the sideline. In fact, Howard caught one of Royals' long blasts just as he was stepping out of bounds at the Detroit 37. In all, Howard had just six yards on one punt return, as Royals averaged 45 yards on three punts and hit two inside the 20.
Royals has actually been locked in for some time now, as demonstrated by his gross average of 44.4 yards per kick, good for fourth in the conference. He has averaged 45 yards or better in each of the Bucs last four games and could threaten his own team record of 43.1, set last year.
WR Andre Hastings also handled the punt return duties well, gaining 26 yards on three returns, with a long of 16. The kickoff coverage squad had the one lapse that resulted in a 42-yard return by Howard, but the dangerous Lion return man piled up just 65 yards on his other three runbacks. Overall, it was the type of special teams effort the Bucs have been waiting for all season.