On “Separation Sunday” in the NFL, it was gut-check time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They didn’t pass, dropping their third straight game.
In a 34-29 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta, the defense struggled to get off the field on third down, Jameis Winston failed to distinguish himself from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the kicker — surprise, surprise — missed a kick that changed the course of the game.
What in the name of Donald Igwebuike is going on here? A kicker makes all 29 of his extra points in a season, then comes to Tampa Bay and misses two in five games? It’s time for a dramatic shift in strategy. It’s time to take a step that most other teams are too afraid to take.
What happened: The Bucs started the game in invincibility mode. Like Mario after collecting a power-up, they looked as if they would defeat the Falcons by merely touching them, charging 75 yards in less than four minutes to score the first touchdown. Winston completed 4 of 5 passes, and Peyton Barber ripped off a 28-yard run. The Bucs, it seemed, could do anything they wanted to do.
Chandler Catanzaro’s extra point try veered left.
I’m not much of a momentum guy, but it felt like walking directly from an amusement park and into a theater to watch A Star is Born.
I’m off the deep end / Watch as I dive in ...
“It hurts to miss an extra point right off the bat,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “You get off to a fast start, and it's a little bit deflating to miss an extra point.”
What changed: The Bucs ended up chasing that point the rest of the game, and while Koetter questioned whether it mattered at the end, it most certainly did.
Had Catanzaro made that extra point, Tampa Bay wouldn’t have had to attempt a two-point conversion (which failed) after Chris Godwin’s fourth-quarter touchdown. 24-22 becomes 24-24, 31-29 becomes 31-31 and 34-29 becomes 34-31, meaning the Bucs could have been in position to kick a game-tying field goal in the final seconds and saved that beautifully-designed multiple-lateral play for another day.
This Jameis lateral play was legitimately almost one of the best plays in NFL history. Given the defense they faced, this is absolute genius.Humphries runs a route in behind the free yards they know Jameis will get. DeSean gets free space to the left.pic.twitter.com/KkGxiMUfHi— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 14, 2018
Instead, Sept. 5, 2009 remains a day in Tampa Bay history that will live in infamy. That’s the day the Bucs cut 34-year-old kicker Matt Bryant. They saved a few pennies but haven’t stop paying the price.
Ever since that day, they’ve gone through kickers like the Browns go through quarterbacks. Mike Nugent. Connor Barth. Rian Lindell. Patrick Murray. Kyle Brindza. Connor Barth again. Roberto Aguayo. Nick Folk. Patrick Murray again. And now — or perhaps more accurately “for now” — Catanzaro.
The Bucs have gone on to make 77.9 percent of their field goals and 96.7 percent of their extra points. They’ve missed 72 kicks in 10 seasons.
Bryant has gone on to make 88.5 percent of his field goals and 99.4 percent of his extra points. He has missed 33 kicks in 10 seasons.
He also has kicked in 11 playoff games. The Bucs haven’t kicked in any.
The latest plot twist is an especially cruel one: Late in the fourth quarter, Falcons coach Dan Quinn, rather than ask his offense to pick up 2 yards on a fourth down, sent Bryant, now 43, onto the field to attempt a 57-yard field goal.
Bryant put everything he had into the kick, even sacrificing his leg in the process. The ball easily cleared the uprights, and I’m pretty sure Bryant’s hamstring did, too. As it turns out, he’s human and not an advanced weapon developed by Stark Industries.
What it means: We can blame the Curse of Matt Bryant, but in reality, kicking has been an issue here since the beginning of time.
Before Sept. 5, 2009 there was Oct. 17, 1976. The 0-5 expansion Bucs vs. the 0-5 expansion Seahawks at Tampa Stadium. With less than a minute to play and Tampa Bay trailing 13-10, Dave Green attempted a 35-yard field goal (Green actually was a punter but inherited the job when Mirro Roder, the team’s first kicker, missed all of his field-goal attempts and was cut). Seattle linebacker Mike Curtis broke through the line and put his hands up.
Blocked. Because Bucs.
It was a Bucs life, even in 1976.
Tampa Bay has signed kickers, traded for kickers, drafted for kickers … nothing seems to work. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the uniforms. Wouldn’t doubt it. They’re that ugly.
Let’s consider other options, and I’m not talking about other kickers. I’m done with them. No more kicker carousel.
My proposal: Why bother kicking extra points anymore? Seriously. Just stop.
Since the beginning of last season, kickers have made 93.7 percent of their extra points. That’s a rate of return of 0.94 points per try. Teams have made 50.4 percent of their two-point conversions. That’s a rate of return of 1.01 points per try. In other words, going for two produces more points.
Let’s go for two. All the time.
• The Bucs fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday. Smith’s defense had allowed 173 points in five games. The 2002 Bucs allowed 196 points all season, though the NFL was a much different league 16 years ago. Koetter said that while he consulted general manager Jason Licht, the decision was his exclusively. Koetter was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons from 2012 to 2014, when Smith was the head coach.
• The move strikes me as desperate, as change for the sake of change. In the interim, the Bucs have installed linebackers coach Mark Duffner as defensive coordinator. The last time Duffner was a defensive coordinator was in 2002, when the Bengals defense allowed an NFL-high 28.5 points per game.
• Licht’s seat just got hotter. Smith’s dismissal puts him squarely in the crosshairs. If the defense continues to struggle over the final 11 games, it’ll be fair to wonder whether the responsibility falls not on the chef, but the man who was shopping for the groceries.
• In his first start since serving a three-game suspension, Winston completed 73.2 percent of his passes, gained 395 yards and threw four touchdown passes. The most important statistic, however, was his two interceptions, one of which he threw when the Bucs were in the red zone. He nearly had three interceptions, but Atlanta dropped one during Tampa Bay’s opening drive.
Apologists will argue that no quarterback is perfect and the Bucs defense requires that level of execution. Matt Ryan, Winston’s counterpart Sunday, didn’t gain as many yards or throw as many touchdown passes, but he didn’t throw any interceptions, and that is why the Falcons won. Since 1940, teams that are minus-2 in turnover margin have a .143 win percentage.
• Despite all that went wrong defensively Sunday, the Bucs succeeded in keeping Julio Jones out of the end zone, though he did catch 10 passes for 143 yards. On the season, Jones has caught 44 passes for 707 yards but no touchdowns.
What I got right
In this weekend’s Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide, I predicted a shootout and that the team that made the most of its red-zone opportunities would win. The Falcons visited the red zone three times, scoring a touchdown each time. The Bucs visited six times, scoring four touchdowns, kicking a field goal and committing a turnover.
What I got wrong
I expected that running back Tevin Coleman would be featured more in the Falcons’ passing attack. He did, however, catch a 6-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that extended Atlanta’s lead to 31-22. The pass was significant for another reason: It was No. 274 for Ryan, putting him ahead of Joe Montana. Ryan’s a little more than halfway to all-time leader Peyton Manning, who threw 539 touchdown passes in his career.
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Statistics are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.