The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the rest of the NFL are just about two weeks away from launching the most unique season in the history of the game. For many, it’ll be a welcome return to the game they love to play and coach. For fans, a cherished opportunity for a taste of normalcy - even though the empty or mostly empty stands will certainly give it a different feel for all involved.
For Bucs fans though, an all too familiar question still sits on the horizon as they get ready to see their favorite team embark on what could be the most exciting season since 2002.
Tampa Bay has been the talk of the town when it comes to football this off-season. Signing the greatest quarterback to play the game will do that. Trading for his cherished tight end serves as an amplifier. Returning every starting member of a defense which was trending upward at the end of last season basically puts the hype train at full-go.
We’ve been over all of those factors though. With all the good, there’s still the areas of worry. Some worry about Tom Brady’s health as an aging quarterback about to take live snaps in a scheme and behind a line known for getting passers hit. Others worry about depth at certain position groups.
Everyone is worried about special teams. Everyone.
Looking at the numbers, the should be. For starters, the Buccaneers have invested two NFL Draft picks in four years on kickers. One, Roberto Aguayo, was a massive miss by general manager Jason Licht and an expensive one in terms of draft capital. The other, Matt Gay, is in his second training camp with the team battling it out with former Orlando Apollos great, Elliott Fry.
In four seasons with the Buccaneers, Matt Bryant delivered on 84% or more of his kicks in three of them with at least 25 tries in each of those three years.
Since 2009 when Bryant joined the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs have had just one kicker reach 84% or better season with 25 or more tries. In 2011, Connor Barth attempted 28 kicks and made 92.9% of them. Then, in 2012, Barth made 84.8% of his 33 kicks.
No other Buccaneers kicker has reached the marks set by Bryant in the past ten years. Meanwhile, Bryant hit that mark or better in seven of those seasons.
There was excitement for Gay last year as the big leg made him a training camp superstar during the preseason. He then started his career seven for nine, costing the Buccaneers a win against the New York Giants in the process.
Following that ‘giant’ miss, Gay went nine for his next ten tries, missing one against the Seattle Seahawks en-route to a six-point road loss. Again, following his miss against the Seahawks, Gay went nine for ten, missing one against the Detroit Lions.
It was the final two weeks where the proverbial wheels fell off. Gay first went two for three in a three point loss to the Houston Texans in Week 16. Then, he missed all three field goal tries against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17. A game which eventually ended on a pick-six thrown on Jameis Winston’s last pass for the franchise, in overtime.
Through Week 15, Gay had tried 29 field goals and made 25 of them, for a made kicks percentage of 86%. Some of the misses he had up to then were really bad misses for the team, but an overall made percentage that high considering he tried more field goals than any other kicker since Matt Bryant’s departure would still leave plenty to be excited about.
Unfortunately for Gay - and Buccaneers fans - and Jameis Winston even - the NFL Season went the full sixteen games in 2019. And those final six kicks saw Gay hit on just 33%, dropping his field goal rate to 77%, and opening the door for the fateful pick-six which all but sealed Winston’s future with the franchise.
Now, Gay and Fry are locked in a back-and-forth training camp battle which is seeing one kicker outshine the other depending on the day, and neither showing enough consistency to put a strangle hold on the job.
The results, have head coach Bruce Arians a little less than enthused about the options sitting in front of him.
Arians was asked about his kicking battle after the team’s Friday scrimmage at Raymond James Stadium, to which he replied,
“Obviously, [Elliott] Fry didn’t have a very good day and [Matt] Gay was OK.”
Bad news for Fry, average news for Gay who likely has the slight edge, not because he took it but because Fry underwhelmed more than anything.
Kicking is what we most focus on when thinking of special teams, but the return game has been just as lackluster in recent years as well.
While the Buccaneers have had eleven punt return touchdowns in franchise history, they’ve only had one return-man bring more than one back (Karl Williams, 5), and haven’t had one at all since Clifton Smith brought one back in November of 2008 against the Detroit Lions.
It took the franchise until 2007 to find the player who would have their first kickoff return for a score, and Michael Spurlock had two of them before he was finished with the team. Smith would add another, and the last time you saw a Bucs player running a kickoff return back for a score was in 2009.
The same year the Bucs’ kicking problems started, is the last year the return game produced points. Interesting.
Of course, there’s more to the return game than just scoring. Yards matter as field position is the constant battle in any NFL game. Since 2009, the Bucs’ best punt returner in terms of averages per return (with at least ten returnes) is Eric Page who played for Tampa Bay in 2013 and 14, and averaged 10.9 yards per return on 23 tries.
In the kick return business, Bobo Wilson holds this distinction with a 28.4 yards per return average on ten tries, just barely making the cutoff. If you want a bigger sample size, Page again leads the way as being the best since Sammie Stroughter with a 24.9 average on 22 returns.
While the Buccaneers are looking for a kicker to emerge, they’re also on the lookout for a return man. Something T.J. Logan was projected to be, before getting injured earlier this camp. Arians mentioned wide receivers Jaydon Mickens and Cyril Grayson as well, in his post-scrimmage comments, saying,
“Jaydon, he’s been Special Teams Player of the Month before, so he’s got a little résumé as a returner. He’s getting better and better as a receiver, so we’ll see how that plays out. I thought [Cyril] Grayson had a nice return, also.”
The - we’ll call it - encouraging news about some of the special teams play didn’t stop there though as Arians also said,
“I think a couple of guys – [Quinton] Bell and [Cam] Gill – looked like they were flying around a bit. Hopefully that’s what shows up on tape – it looked like it out there. But, sometimes it lies out there and tape tells the truth, so I’ll wait and see the tape.”
Outside of this scrimmage, and another if the Buccaneers do indeed follow-through with another, we won’t get much else to run on with the special teams.
It’s hard to gauge just how effective a unit like that can be with no contact and kickers kicking without a real rush coming at them.
Even a scrimmage environment isn’t going to tell the whole story, but it’s better than nothing at this point.
Coach Arians and his staff have some tough decisions to make. With guys like Bell and Gill, there might be better opportunities to stick as linebackers with their special teams contributions.
For Grayson and Mickens however, considering the presence of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and the strong camp from Scotty Miller, there seems to be three receiver slots spoken for. Justin Watson has gotten praise and Tyler Johnson is likely to get a spot if he’s not on IR before cut day. If those five make it, there’s a slim window for guys like Grayson and Mickens to sneak through, so they’ll have to do whatever they can to prove their value on special teams.
It may not be the sexiest topic in the world, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers know better than most franchise’s just how toxic ineffective special teams play can be. Competition is good, and the team certainly has some good ones raging at key special teams positions.
Good luck to the competitors, and good luck to the Bucs fans who are about to embark on another year’s worth of high stress levels every time the team tries a field goal.