From used goods to newfound glory, the road leading up to Sunday’s dramatic game-winning field goal wasn’t full of kicks for the Bucs Matt Bryant.
After setting his high school record in Bridge City, Texas, knocking down a 52-yard field goal, Bryant connected on a school record 42 consecutive extra points at Baylor University. But after graduating from college, his phone fell silent and his kicking career shadowed in doubt.
That’s when he went to work at a pawnshop in Orange, Texas, practicing field goals on his lunch breaks. In a press conference at One Buc Place on Monday, Bryant said there were many times when he came close to calling it quits and giving up on his dream of kicking in the NFL.
The New York Giants signed him a week before their season opener in 2002. That year, Bryant played in 17 games and was named Special Teams Player of the Week on two occasions.
Between that point and his ascension into the spotlight in Sunday’s game against the Eagles, Bryant was waived and released on separate occasions by the Giants, waived by Indianapolis and signed and released by Miami.
On Monday, Bryant said he doesn’t want his legacy to ride on the heels of just one kick.
“To tell you the truth, don’t get me wrong, I really didn’t realize how much of a big deal the kick was, as far as it being the second-longest in history,” Bryant said. “To me, it was more important that we won the game.
“Am I excited I made the kick? Yes. It was fun. It’s not everyday you get to do that. You can count on two fingers how many other people have kicked it that far. That’s over with. New game. For right now, I’ll enjoy it.”
While Bryant’s humility downplayed the significance of the kick, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio trumpeted his efforts in their own ways.
Iorio made a special appearance at One Buc Place Monday morning, saying Bryant’s kick uplifted the spirits of the city. She also presented the Bucs’ kicker with a plaque declaring October 23, 2006, Matt Bryant Day.
Just prior to the presentation, Gruden held his weekly press conference and expressed his thoughts.
“It was an unbelievable day in my life,” Gruden said. “Really, it was a Hail Mary. The ball was struck and our prayers were answered.”
While you can’t blame the coach for being hung over with joy, Gruden was not totally blind to the fact that Sunday’s game continued to expose some obvious issues. Issues concerning the team’s lingering inability to make tackles. Issues surrounding missed opportunities on offense. And concerns with lingering injuries to key players.
While Gruden said, “We need to get more done on all phases,” tackling better seems to be the highest priority on the list. The team has been chastised all season for its inability to wrap up opposing players, but there was never such a glaring example as there was Sunday, when Eagles running back Brian Westbrook turned a simple dump pass into a 52-yard game of catch me if you can, dodging and swerving through and around the outstretched arms of at least five different defenders.
Had it not been for Bryant’s heroic kick, the burden of a loss would have fallen largely on the defense’s shoulders, despite a career performance from cornerback Ronde Barber, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns on Sunday.
“It’s our traditional Tampa 2, it’s our Cover 2 we’re playing in that situation,” explained Gruden. “It’s third-and-6, they check the ball down for a gain of three and we have a great player right there to make that tackle. I think we all assumed that guy’s down, and he wasn’t down.
“[Westbrook] made a guy miss and we had a couple bad angles I think because of that. Maybe we did get off the gas pedal a little bit and Westbrook did make two or three of the damnedest moves you’ll ever see. It was a combination of those two things.”
The cause for concern was compounded not only by when the play occurred in the game, the final minute, but more so by which player committed the most flagrant whiff on Westbrook, team captain and cornerstone of the defense, Derrick Brooks.
As he appears to be doing more often these days, Gruden went to bat in defense of one of his defensive pillars.
“We’ve got work to do. We’re not perfect,” he said. “And I know Derrick is as sick as he’s ever been about missing that tackle. But the great thing about Brooks is, he’ll spit that out and forget about it. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
The coach admitted the team is “not tackling up to its standards,” but said he wouldn’t go as far as to say the defense failed to “finish the game” because they won.
Barber was one of the five players who missed on Westbrook during that play. But his two interceptions for touchdowns were the difference in the game and they were also the 9th and 10th of his career, extending his team record.
It was the first time in franchise history a player returned two picks for scores in a regular season game. Safety Dwight Smith did it in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Because they are a veteran group, led by one of the game’s most respected coordinators, Monte Kiffin, Gruden feels the defense will come around.
The same can’t be said for Tampa Bay’s young offense. Experience is something they are gaining each week, but missed opportunities abound against Philadelphia. The Bucs managed to slip away with a win despite not scoring an offensive touchdown.
When it comes to the moving the ball and scoring, it’s not hard to find room for improvement. The Bucs offense ranks dead last in the NFC and 29th overall. Only one team in the NFC has a worse pass offense than Tampa Bay (175 ypg), and that’s Atlanta (132.7 ypg). However, the Falcons possess the conference’s top-rated rushing attack, averaging 222.2 yards per game. Tampa Bay’s 92.3 rush yards per game average is just slightly better than NFC cellar dwellers, Detroit (79.7) and Arizona (66.9), both with 1-6 records.
“We have to get more out of our passing game,” Gruden said Monday.
The reigns may have been pulled back a little on the Bucs’ rookie signal caller against an aggressive, opportunistic defense such as the Eagles.
Gradkowski attempted 26 passes Sunday, as opposed to his 44 attempts against Cincinnati the week before. Of those 26 passes, 13 went for completions. The average gain per pass play? Three yards.
“We did not throw it a lot yesterday,” Gruden said. “We just have to keep working at it. We have a young quarterback, a lot of plays we are calling, and [it is] the first time he has ever ran them. A lot of the blitzes, and a lot of the things he is seeing, is the first time he has ever seen them. We will get better. Bruce [Gradkowski] is doing a great job. I just think as time moves on we need to get a couple of more big plays from our passing game and I am confident that we will. We just have to keep working.”
Gruden also admitted his play calling on third downs against Philadelphia may have been conservative.
Although they were out-rushed by an almost 2-to-1 margin, Gruden gave the rushing attack, and Cadillac Williams in particular, praise. He said Williams ran hard and that the offensive line was able block well enough to sustain some drives in the second half. He was not pleased with the fact they failed to finish a single drive with a touchdown.
Regardless of how they did it though, in the last two weeks the Bucs have defeated two teams expected to make the playoffs this season. When asked if he thought the Bucs had a chance of going 9-7 and making a run at the post season he said, “We are hanging around. We are still around and we aren’t going anyplace.
“We are no longer 0-4. We made a goal, I think between ourselves, to just all agree we had a horrific start to this season. We went 0-4 in the first quarter and let’s not talk about it anymore. Let’s see what we can get done in the second quarter of the season.
“So far we are 2-0 and I think it is uplifting to everybody to beat two teams as highly-touted as Cincinnati and Philadelphia were when we played them. It is a really good accomplishment.”
WHERE DID YOU GO, JOE? Wide receiver Joey Galloway’s absence from Sunday’s stat sheet was anything but typical considering he appeared to be Gradkowski’s go-to-guy in the team’s previous two outings.
But eight different receivers did catch passes against Philadelphia. Michael Clayton led the way with three catches for 30 yards. None more important than his 11-yard reception on the Bucs’ final drive, which help set up Bryant’s record-setting field goal.
The most important stat coming out of Sunday’s game was zero, as in zero turnovers. Tampa Bay won the turnover battle for only the second time all year (Carolina), picking off Donovan McNabb three times and recovering one fumble.
That was one of Gruden’s main objectives heading into Sunday and one of the reasons he played it more conservative on offense.
“Bruce [Gradkowski] hasn’t been working with [Joey] Galloway for more than three weeks,” Gruden said. “He hasn’t really done a lot of the things that we’re asking him to do and hopefully he’ll improve at that the longer we practice and get to know one another.
“But our goal yesterday was to not have any turnovers. And I thought he was a little cautious at times, which was part of our game plan going in. He didn’t take a lot of chances with the ball. I said yesterday, I think we’re 13-0 when we don’t have any turnovers. And clearly yesterday the turnovers did Philadelphia in.”
PITTMAN MAKES IMPACT With his role diminished by the emergence of Cadillac Williams, running back Michael Pittman can fly under the radar at times. But on Monday Gruden singled him out for his 37-yard kickoff return, which gave the Bucs good starting field position on the eventual game-winning drive.
INJURY REPORT Cornerback Brian Kelly was held out of the Eagles game as expected. Gruden and the Bucs organization have been tight lipped about whether or not the nine-year pro will take the field again this year. On Monday, there was no update on the issue.
Juran Bolden continues to fill in for Kelly and intercepted his first pass of the season against the Eagles.
The left guard position is another issue heading into this week’s game against the New York Giants. Sean Mahan and Dan Buenning have been splitting time there with Mahan starting against Philadelphia and Buenning spelling him at points in the second half.
“Well, we like Buenning,” Gruden said. “Buenning is a guy who had started 18 or 19 games for us. He’s battling some injuries, I do believe, with his hip and ankle. I don’t think he’s 100 percent right now. And we think Mahan’s pretty good, too. So we have a little depth there. We have a little competition going and we’re doing the best we can to be fair and give our team the best chance to win.”
INSTANT REPLAY Tampa Bay’s 23-21 thrilling victory over Philadelphia will be re-aired at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday in the NFL Network’s new series, NFL Replay.