Can this man find a kicker for the Bucs?

New spe­cial teams coach Keith Arm­strong looks for more than a good leg and ac­cu­racy.

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports -

TAMPA —No­body ben­e­fited from the Bucs’ re­lease of kicker Matt Bryant more than Keith Arm­strong.

Arm­strong lived the re­verse of the curse. For the past 10 sea­sons, Arm­strong has coached spe­cial teams for the Fal­cons. While Bryant — who signed with At­lanta after the Bucs re­leased him in 2009 — was con­nect­ing on 88.7 per­cent of his 282 field-goal at­tempts, the Bucs’ col­lec­tion of 11 way­ward kick­ers made only 77.3 per­cent of 300 dur­ing that time.

Tampa Bay also has missed 11 ex­tra-points tries since the NFL in 2015 moved the spot for the ball to the 15-yard line from the 2.

Bryant un­der­scored the Bucs’ 2009 mis­take this sea­son.

The 43-year-old boomed a 57-yard field goal with 1:10 re­main­ing in the game in a 34-29 win over Tampa Bay at At­lanta on Oct. 14. Then Bryant hit a win­ning 37-yard field goal as time ex­pired in At­lanta’s 34-32 win at Tampa in the Dec. 30 sea­son fi­nale.

Now it’s Arm­strong’s turn to see how the other half has died. As the Bucs’ new spe­cial teams coach un­der Bruce Ari­ans, he in­her­its a decade of doinks off the up­rights.

So what can he do to cor­rect the Bucs’ legacy of crooked legs left by Mike Nu­gent, Shane An­drus, Con­nor Barth, Rian Lin­dell, Pat Mur­ray, Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk, Chan­dler Catan­zaro and Cairo San­tos?

Arm­strong knows the im­por­tance of a good kicker.

“Big time,’’ he said. “They win games, you know what I mean?’’

In 2004, Arm­strong was Mi­ami’s spe­cial­teams coach when the Dol­phins hired Bryant as a fill-in while Olindo Mare healed from a thigh in­jury.

“When Olindo Mare came back at Mi­ami and we fin­ished the sea­son, I’m sit­ting there say­ing, ‘Huh, did we keep the right guy?’ ‘’ Arm­strong re­called Fri­day. “Then Bryant

comes up (to the Bucs). As soon as we went to At­lanta and Bryant was let go here, I went right in and got him, and he was the right guy.’’

A quick les­son on how the Bucs’ kick­ing curse be­gan. Bryant kicked for the Bucs from 2005-08, mak­ing 83.1 per­cent of his field-goal tries. But in 2009, when the Bucs made Mark Do­minik their gen­eral man­ager, Do­minik signed Nu­gent to a $2.5 mil­lion con­tract, in­clud­ing bonuses, about dou­ble what Bryant was earn­ing.

Bryant had a ham­string strain but had been told he would kick in the pre­sea­son fi­nale. That was be­fore he went on a bay area ra­dio show and voiced his dis­ap­point­ment in his com­pe­ti­tion with Nu­gent.

Shortly after the in­ter­view, Bryant was told he would not kick in the fi­nal pre­sea­son game and Nu­gent had won the job. The Bucs noted that Bryant had made only 2 of 10 field-goal at­tempts from 50-plus yards at that point in his ca­reer; they pre­sum­ably wanted a stronger leg.

The Bucs’ loss was Arm­strong’s gain. But now he’s tasked with find­ing Tampa Bay’s next kicker.

Leg strength and ac­cu­racy are im­por­tant.

“When you look at the three guys I’ve had in At­lanta, (long snap­per) Josh Har­ris was a wrestler,’’ Arm­strong said. “So to me, tough­ness. You say, ‘Why a wrestler?’ Well, you ever wres­tle be­fore? They’re tough peo­ple. … Phys­i­cally and men­tally tough peo­ple.

“(Punter) Matt Bosher … was a soc­cer player. But Matt Bosher was get­ting into fights in the locker room. … So, tough­ness.

“Now you get to Matt and you say, ‘What’s the one thing that jumps out at you about Matt?’ Matt’s tough, and he’s not afraid of the mo­ment.”

Con­sider the re­sources the Bucs have in­vested in kick­ers. They traded third and fourthround draft picks to move into the sec­ond round and draft Aguayo in 2016. They paid Folk $1.75 mil­lion for four games and a 2-of-5 field-goal per­for­mance in 2017. Catan­zaro walked away with $3.75 mil­lion for go­ing 11-of15 on field and with four missed point-after tries in nine games. San­tos went 9-of-12 on field goals but is a free agent.

“It’s not just the leg,’’ Arm­strong said. ‘There’s a lot of guys that have tal­ent. … Boy, you go to some of these high school camps and guys are blow­ing the ball over the fence. You’re like, ‘Wow.’ So you’re like, “Okay, let’s do it for $1,000, just to put some­thing at stake.’ Okay, now there’s a re­sult. Now, what starts to hap­pen?”

Arm­strong could be one of the most im­por­tant hires for the Bucs. Spe­cial teams have not been a strength for them, but Arm­strong al­ways has ad­mired the speed Tampa Bay ha put on the field.

His re­la­tion­ship with Ari­ans brought him here. Arm­strong, 55, started as a fresh­man run­ning back for Ari­ans at Tem­ple but was re­placed the next year by Paul Palmer, a fu­ture first-round pick of the Chiefs. Arm­strong moved to full­back and com­pleted his four years at Tem­ple, when Ari­ans asked him to be­come a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant in 1987.

“I was al­ready a grinder,’’ Arm­strong said. “He was look­ing for tough guys. He was try­ing to run us off, and he couldn’t run me off.”

Now Arm­strong is en­trusted with, among other things, break­ing the curse he ben­e­fited from.

One other thing about Arm­strong’s phi­los­o­phy: He sees the long snap­per, punter and kicker as spe­cial­ists. They have to earn their way on to the rest of the team.

“I tell those guys, don’t try to be a part of the team,’’ Arm­strong said. “Don’t try to fit in with the team. This is your area. Stay in your area. But you’ve got to do your job. The team will come to you. Don’t try to chase the team. Make the team come to you.’’

LUIS SAN­TANA | Times

Keith Arm­strong comes from the Fal­cons, where he had ex-Buc Matt Bryant for 10 years.

RICK STROUDBucs

MON­ICA HERN­DON | Times

Matt Bryant, cut by the Bucs be­fore the 2009 sea­son, is “tough, and he’s not afraid of the mo­ment,” Keith Arm­strong says.

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