TAMPA — Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith puts a premium on special teams play. He’ll be happy to know, then, his chances of having a premier place kicker for 2014 appear to be increasing.
Near his family home in Wilmington, N.C., this offseason, Bucs kicker Connor Barth has spent his winter slicing up the brisk North Carolina air with kicks that surprised even him to a small degree.
He started hitting regularly on field goals in the 50-yard range in early January. Then, just last week, he hit a 61-yarder that had a few yards to spare. For Barth, that is no small achievement.
It was only last July, just a few days before the start of training camp, that he ruptured the Achilles tendon on his kicking foot while playing in a charity basketball game near his hometown.
It was the first time anyone with the Bucs could remember an active kicker rupturing his Achilles tendon. So, to say Barth was concerned about his career ending prematurely would be an understatement.
“I was concerned about being able to do normal things, like walking around and stuff like that,” Barth said by phone. “But I started kicking balls again in October and I was surprised how easy it was.
“It was just like riding a bike. I had no effects from the injury at all. And in the last few weeks, I’ve been pretty much feeling like I did last year before I got injured. I’m back to 100 percent.”
That’s good news for the Bucs. Forced to scramble for a kicker after losing not only Barth but also Lawrence Tynes (MRSA infection), they settled on veteran Rian Lindell, who finished the year ranked 26th in the league in field goal percentage.
If healthy, Barth could put the Bucs back near the top of the league in that category. With an 84.3 percent conversion rate, he is the most accurate kicker in team history. And those 50- and 60-yarders he’s been making this offseason are no fluke.
Prior to the start of last season, Barth’s 33 field goals of 40 yards or longer, which include eight from 50 yards or more, were the most of any kicker in the league the previous two years.
“I don’t see any reason why I can’t get back to that,” Barth said. “I feel fantastic. I got cleared from my rehab back in January and it’s been full go with my personal trainer every since. I couldn’t be happier.”
If the shoe fits
Though certainly not at the same pace as Barth, Tynes also has made good progress in his attempt to recover from the MRSA infection he contracted last year.
According to his agent, Ken Harris, Tynes will try in the next week or so to put on a kicking shoe and kick balls again. That might sound like an easy task, but it’s not, because kickers wear a shoe on their kicking foot that is sometimes two sizes smaller than their foot size.
That creates a lot of pain, and the MRSA infection has seemingly left Tynes’ foot more susceptible to that pain. So, the challenge of wearing a kicking shoe could prove monumental.
Tynes is still Bucs property, but a ruling tied to the grievance that was filed as a result of his being placed on the non-football-injury list instead of injured reserve last year could change that.
Tynes is seeking to become a free agent and with free agency starting on Tuesday, it’s likely that a ruling in the matter will come Monday.