Legends of curses are as old as time. Throughout history and folklore, the forces required to break a curse are often just as complex as they are to form them. Curses can impact those afflicted in a multitude of ways, but the focus generally revolves around the projection of suffering and misfortune upon the target, even if it’s just a consistent run of bad luck.
In our life there are tales of black cats and broken mirrors, but the origins of curses goes much further back than me and you. In fact, one of the oldest tales of misfortune comes from Greek mythology; the story of Tantalus, mortal son of Zeus.
Following an atrocity, Zeus banished Tantalus to the underworld where he would forever endure a curse of hunger and thirst. Tantalus was placed in a pool of water, underneath the branches of fruit-bearing trees, however the fruit would sway just out of reach as he tried to grasp it and the water would drain as he knelt to drink.
In Tampa Bay there is the story of the kicker, a curse that has plagued Bucs fans to an extent where it may be believed that Tantalus got the easy way out. Much like Tantalus, as close as breaking free has seemed at times, it has always swayed just out of reach (or wide of the goalpost.)
Former Bucs K Roberto Aguayo – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Now entering Tampa Bay’s eighth consecutive season with a new kicker on opening day, the Bucs’ kicking woes over recent years have been well-documented. Some struggles hurt less than others, but at the top, they are highlighted by second-round bust Roberto Aguayo. Drafted 59th overall in 2016, Aguayo was handed the starting job in his rookie season under former head coach Dirk Koetter. Nicknamed “Mr. Perfect” following his record-breaking tenure at Florida State – a career where he converted nearly 97 percent of his total kicks.
But Aguayo was anything but perfect with the Bucs.
In a Week 3 match up against the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, Tampa Bay entered the game with a 1-1 record. Down 7-0 early, Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander intercepted Rams quarterback Case Keenum for a pick-six. But the cheers of Bucs fans were quickly tempered after Aguayo failed on the extra point attempt, leaving Tampa Bay behind.
Early in the second half the Bucs had climbed back and built a 20-17 lead. As their latest drive stalled out, Aguayo lined up for 41-yard field goal attempt. The rookie kicker missed wide left and again left points on the field.
After failing to convert on two separate two-point conversion attempts later in the game, Tampa Bay would eventually fall to the Rams by five points in a 37-32 shootout. They would’ve never been in that situation had Aguayo done his job.
The Bucs finished 9-7 that season and narrowly missed the playoffs via tiebreaker, and the pick that was destined to break the Bucs’ kicking curse may have only added gasoline to a longstanding fire.
Aguayo lost his job the following preseason and was then followed by 11-year veteran Nick Folk, who converted just six of his 11 field goal attempts over four games in 2017 before being released. Next, Chandler Catanzaro was signed prior to the 2018 season, converting just 11 of his 15 field goal attempts while missing four extra points before being replaced by Cairo Santos after nine games.
Over the last eight years, the Bucs have tried everything. They’ve drafted kickers high and low, they’ve signed some from around the league, they’ve been young and old. Yet nothing seems to work.
At this point you have to admit, as far-fetched as it seems, it’s hard not to let the thought creep into your mind: are the repeated and consistent struggles at kicker the result of some sort of curse?
It could be a compounding pressure that weighs heavier on the psyche of an already mentally-exhausting position with every new signing, but would that not be a curse in and of itself? Are there supernatural forces inflicting suffering on those signed, and the fan base, merely searching for the right player to break the spell?
In 2018, the Bucs were one of just seven teams in the league with a field goal percentage below 80 percent and had the fourth-lowest field goal percentage as a team at 74.1 percent. Of those seven teams, just one of them, Chicago, made the playoffs.
Now, kicking has changed over the years, but the Bucs have only seen four kickers in franchise history attempt more than 10 field goals for the team and finish their stint in Tampa Bay with a field percentage over 80. Adding to that, only three of those kickers did so over a span of three or more years with the team: Patrick Murray, Connor Barth and Matt Bryant.
Bucs K Patrick Murray – Photo by: Getty Images
Even the franchise’s kicking legend Martin Gramatica – who remains the franchise’s highest scoring player in history – finished his nearly six-season run with the Bucs at a 76.5 percent clip, despite eclipsing the 80 percent mark in three of those seasons.
Now enters Matt Gay, the Bucs’ fifth-round draft pick out of Utah from their 2019 draft class.
Gay first caught my attention at the East-West Shrine Game back in January. As I walked down to field level at Tropicana Field before the second day of practice, I noticed a big kicker warming up by launching propped up footballs straight through the uprights from midfield, 60-yard kicks. But it wasn’t just the sheer distance that caught my eye, it was him hitting the kicks with consistency, and often with some extra yards to spare.
Later in the day, during a live scrimmage, Gay lined up for a 63-yard attempt and just missed it. He didn’t sink his shoulders and jog off the field, he slapped his helmet, visibly upset at missing a kick that’s nearing an NFL record. I asked him about the mentality involved, and just how upset he could realistically be when missing a kick of that distance.
“I should make it, I definitely should make it,” Gay said. “I was very upset. One of them, I didn’t think it was a great operation, the whole thing, it didn’t come off my foot great and I just didn’t hit the ball how I wanted it to.”
“Those are kicks that I know I can make, and that I should make, and I was frustrated and disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to hit one.”
Gay has the leg strength that any team would want. He beat out Santos in a nearly flawless preseason kicking battle and showed the poise to drill a 55-yard field goal in Heinz Field against the Steelers, a 48-yard game-winning field goal against the Dolphins with just six seconds remaining in the Bucs’ second preseason game and added another game-winner against the Browns.
Bucs K Matt Gay – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
But getting to this point wasn’t easy and Buccaneer general manager Jason Licht absolutely took his share of punishment from his fan base after drafting a second kicker since taking the reins as G.M. in Tampa Bay.
All might not be forgotten, but if the team’s rookie kicker can take this opportunity and run with it, he may be the force that shatters the kicking curse.
A former soccer player at Utah Valley University turned walk-on kicker at Utah turned NFL draft pick, Gay was phenomenal at the college level. Gay converted on 56-of-65 career field goal attempts with the Utes for a field goal percentage of 86.2 percent, including a career-long of 55 yards against Oregon in 2018. He earned the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top placekicker in his first year with the team. The Bucs clearly saw him as the team’s kicker of the future, opting to use a draft pick on him with Santos re-signed to a one-year contract this past off-season.
But drafting another kicker? How could that even be fathomed just three seasons after the selection of Aguayo?
If Santos wasn’t the long-term solution, something can be said for the opportunity to sign a kicker through free agency. But, like most things in the NFL, that’s far from a guarantee, and being a general manager is often more about playing the odds.
Of the remaining kickers in free agency, as the 2019 off-season rolled along, there were issues that came with most, hence the reason they were no longer on a roster.
Matt Bryant, Sebastian Janikowski and Phil Dawson were all available with long and successful resumes, but they’re all on the wrong side of 40 years old. Kai Forbath has been accurate throughout his career, but he’s also 31-years-old and over a year removed from playing a complete season in the NFL. Cody Parkey has converted on 76.7 percent of his field goals in his career, but unfortunately carries the infamous miss against the Eagles in the playoffs and the media whirlwind that ensued, while Blair Walsh and Connor Barth have both seen a significant decline in accuracy over recent years. Both kickers found themselves without a roster spot in 2018 while neither has surpassed that 80 percent field goal percentage baseline since 2015, respectively.
While spending a second-round pick on a kicker can be a career-threatening decision for a general manager, drafting a kicker late is an interesting gamble. At that point in the draft, players are often considered “fliers.” They have something that a team sees in them, but also clear deficiencies – on or off the field – that leave them available on Day 3 of draft weekend with an often uphill climb to remain and produce with that team.
Wide receiver Justin Watson was just drafted in the fifth round in 2018. While he remains on the team, the jury is still out on what he can truly bring. Watson, given his unique mix of speed and size being a potential fit for Bruce Arians’ offense, was expected to step up as the Bucs’ fourth wide receiver – possibly battling newly-acquired Breshad Perriman for that third spot – but a less-than-stellar preseason left the competition open.
Bucs WR Justin Watson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Here are the other fifth-round draft picks the Bucs have selected over a decade-long span between 2008 and 2017: Josh Johnson, Xavier Fulton, Ahmad Black, Najee Goode, Steven Means, Kadeem Edwards, Kevin Pamphile, Kenny Bell, Caleb Benenoch and Jeremy McNichols. All gambles, most of which haven’t panned out.
That tells us that no matter what position you play on offense or defense, making the roster as a late-round pick is an uphill climb.
But what about for kickers?
As for kickers drafted between the fifth and seventh rounds? Since 2012, nine out of the 13 kickers drafted in that time frame have carried career field goal percentages above 80 percent, with Jason Sanders, Harrison Butker and Dustin Hopkins all eclipsing 85 percent. So, by the numbers, drafting a kicker in the later rounds, when you need one, is actually a better investment than taking a gamble on a position player, statistically speaking.
The Bucs don’t need a Dan Bailey, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, and the Bucs don’t need an Adam Vinatieri, the highest scoring player in NFL history over his 23-year career — although they’d sure like Gay to become someone like that. The Bucs merely need a kicker that puts their mind at ease, someone that can be relied on to make the kicks he’s expected to and – with his cannon for a leg – maybe a few that aren’t as expected, too.
If Gay can remain with the Bucs for the entirety of his rookie contract while keeping a field goal percentage above 80 percent, he would not only become a fan favorite and make the public bite their tongues after understandably drawing parallels to Licht’s second-round blunder just a few years before, he would break the cycle of a cursed kicking game in Tampa Bay.
After earning the starting job the preseason, he’ll get his chance to start that journey Week 1 at home against the San Francisco 49ers.