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tiggerpolice 07-20-2005 07:58 AM

Bucs need kick in the right direction
By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist
Published July 20, 2005


TAMPA - Look out there, at the end of the field, and you will see it. The well-defined limits. The familiar outline. The unforgiving borders. For the Buccaneers, this is the area where hope will be measured in 2005.

Optimism, in some places, stretches a mile wide.

Around here, it goes 18 feet, 6 inches.

Or the length of one goalpost to the other.

"If we just improve that one element," general manager Bruce Allen is saying, "we'll be an improved team."

There is absolutely nothing between those two gold uprights, and yet for the Buccaneers, there is everything. Extra point conversions, and missed opportunities. Game-winning field goals, and empty promises.

No team in the NFL has been worse than Tampa Bay when it comes to kicking field goals the past two seasons and, not coincidentally, only a handful have had fewer victories.

So, yeah, it is okay to be excited about the introduction of Carnell Williams to the offensive huddle. And, sure, you can be encouraged knowing Brian Griese has had a full offseason to soak up the playbook.

But without a noticeable upgrade on special teams, the Bucs will again be kicking themselves come December.

"What it can mean psychologically and strategically," Allen said, "is dramatic."

The numbers are no longer shocking. From the start of the 2003 season, the Bucs have been dreadful when it comes to kicking field goals. They converted 61.5 percent one season. They converted 62.5 percent the next.

That is, by far, the NFL's worst during that span. The league average for those two seasons is 79.9 percent.

But the numbers do not tell the entire story. They do not explain how coach Jon Gruden has been forced to adjust his strategy because he could not depend on his placekicker. They do not account for the way a missed field goal can deflate an offense's hopes after driving into enemy territory.

"The hidden statistic of the missed field goal is in the dynamics of the game," Allen said. "It's a dramatic play in football because it affects more than the scoreboard. It affects the mind."

And it has impacted the Bucs more than most teams. With a roster built around defense, Tampa Bay has a tendency to play a field-possession game. Shootouts have been rare, which puts scoring at even greater premium.

When the Bucs were at their best - from 1999-2002 - they averaged 86 points a year in field goals. The past two seasons, they've averaged around 46 points. Not only has the percentage dropped, but the number of attempts has gone way down. That tells you something of Gruden's reluctance to kick.

It also tells you why the Bucs had their eyes on Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent in the draft. Unfortunately for them, the Jets pulled the trigger on Nugent in the second round, shortly after the Bucs had taken linebacker Barrett Ruud.

So, instead, Tampa Bay is putting its faith in the free agent market. Matt Bryant has connected on 80 percent of his field goals (40-of-50) but has bounced around the NFL for a number of years. Todd France had decent numbers in NFL Europe but is essentially unproven.

The problem is kickers are not easy to evaluate. A 40-yard sprint does not help. A bench-press means nothing at all. Even a good workout during the week does not guarantee success on Sunday.

Kicking, more than most positions, is mental. And it's impossible to measure a kicker's confidence or heart until he is in a game.

"All of those guys are about 95-98 percent in warmups. Every one of them," Allen said. "But things change. They are human."

The trend in the NFL, for a number of years, has been closer games. Revenue sharing and the salary cap have made rosters more evenly matched. Which means placekickers are at a greater premium than ever before.

This may explain the chart on a wall in Allen's office at One Buc Place. It is a list of the eight division winners from last season and their records in games decided by three points or fewer. The records add up to 21-6.

It's hard to say whether the numbers are there to remind or to mock. In their past eight games decided by three points or fewer, the Bucs lost six of them. And there have been several other games that would have been closer - and could have been won - if field goals had been made in the first half.

"In NFL history, field goals are the one statistic that keeps increasing in excellence," Allen said. "(Mike) Vanderjagt had that season where he made 100 percent a couple of years ago, and now everyone in Indy is mad at him because he made 80 percent last year. Eighty percent? Yes! We'll take that."

Look at it this way:

At least the Bucs have room to improve.

Eighteen feet, 6 inches, to be exact.

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