What a difference two weeks makes. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended their preseason Wednesday night with a 20-13 loss to the Washington Redskins in rain-soaked Raymond James Stadium, Bucs rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo and probably general manager Jason Licht felt they could breathe again.
Only 11 days earlier, the second-round pick missed field goals of 32 and 49 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second preseason game, which was nine days after he missed an extra point in the preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Throughout the offseason, Licht was forced to defend his April decision to not only select Aguayo 59th overall, but trade into the second round to do it. That choice wasn’t looking too good after those three missed kicks in two games, followed by heckling from fans during a training-camp practice with the Cleveland Browns.
Yes, there was a 50-plus-yard field Aguayo made that allowed practice to end early before the Browns arrived in town, but Aguayo was struggling and seemingly unsure of himself.
It all changed in the game against Cleveland, the first home game after two on the road. That game would test the rookie in front of the nervous home fans wondering about the wisdom of the pick.
Aguayo made a 48-yard field 2:25 into the game, then hit short kicks of 21 and 27 yards. He also connected on all three of his extra points. Five nights later, before a sparse crowd because of impending storms that moved the game up one day, Aguayo nailed a 50-yard field goal in a driving rainstorm. He added a 22-yard field goal and an extra point.
The preseason ended with Aguayo connecting on 6 of 8 field-goal attempts and 6 of 7 extra points. Yes, it was only the preseason, but at least until the season begins Sept. 11 at Atlanta, talk will stop of Aguayo being another John Lee.
A second-round pick by the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1986, Lee had as much of a celebrated college career at UCLA as Aguayo did at Florida State. Aguayo was flawless on field-goal attempts inside 40 yards during his career and Lee was almost as good.
Overall, in his college career, Lee was 79 of 92 on field goals (85.9 percent), including 54 of 56 inside the 40, a then-NCAA record. But the struggles began after he made all six of his field-goal attempts in the preseason, including three in the Hall of Fame Game.
Before going on injured reserve with a knee injury after 11 games, Lee missed three extra points, along with 5 of 13 field-goal attempts. He missed once between the 20 and 29, once from 30-39 and was 1 of 4 from 40-49.
After being released by the Cardinals at the end of training camp in 1987, Lee told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t feel like, right now to be honest, I miss football at all.”
Of his experience, Lee said, “It was really hell. That’s the bottom line. I wish I could start all over again. But it happened. It’s not the end of my life, but it’s taken a lot out of me. The last year-and-a-half was the longest in my life. Nothing happened that I was happy with. Right now, there’s just no way I can play again. I’ve just lost interest, I guess.
“I kind of hope I start missing football. Maybe I’ll get the motivation of picking up the ball and kicking it.”
He did the next summer, but was cut by the Raiders on Aug. 22 after hitting just 1 of 3 field-goal attempts. He never went to another NFL training camp.
It doesn’t appear anything that drastic will happen to Aguayo, but being an NFL kicker isn’t exactly a stable profession.
Consider these numbers: Of the 40 players that kicked in games last season, only 13 were with their first NFL team. Of that number, 10 started their career in 2011 or later; five in the last 2 seasons. And of that 10, only six were draft picks.
Overall, of those 40 kickers, just 14 were drafted, and only two as early as the second round: Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski was a first-round pick in 2000, while Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent was a second-round pick of the Jets in 2005.
There was also one fourth-round pick, three in the fifth and seventh rounds, and five in the sixth round.
It’s clear Licht gambled by picking Aguayo.
After his bounce-back game against the Browns, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter was asked if he was confident Aguayo’s slump was over. He joked, “Ha-ha. Well, he’s a rookie. I’m sure there’ll be other days where – I mean, I don’t think he’s missed his last kick he’s ever going to miss.”
Aguayo was getting unsolicited advice from numerous former NFL kickers and was also talking with a “mental” coach. Of course, sometimes too much advice can bloat the mind.
And he knows it. Asked after the Cleveland game how he fought through the adversity, Aguayo said, “I’ve done this my whole life. I just sit back and think that my collegiate career didn’t happen by accident. I just sat back and realized how I got here and just doing what I do on a regular basis – not try to overthink about it. When you overthink it too much, you put more pressure than I need on myself. Just go out there and do what I do.
“At the end of the day, a professional at any level of sports; sometimes you go through things when things aren’t clicking right and that’s for everyone. How to focus, how to lock in and do what I got to do and do what I did at Florida State and all the years back growing up. I really came into this game being calm and kicking the ball.”
After Wednesday night’s game, he told Jenna Laine of ESPN, “It feels good. This is what I know I can do. The first couple of games … I think about it, like if I would have done what I did in the first two games (in the) sixth or seventh game – missed an extra point, missed two field goals – it’s questionable. But I’m glad it happened in the preseason. I knew I was going to bounce back and do what I had to do. It feels good going into the season.”
Of course, he knows he now has to do it and be consistent in NFL games that matter, when kicks often provide the razor-thin difference between winning and losing.
Koetter concluded he thought Aguayo was helped by practicing at the team’s stadium a few days before the game against the Browns. He said, “Yeah he did well; he did a lot better. When a kicker’s on, there’s a certain sound when he hits that ball, and he definitely had not been having that. And you could see the ball jumping off his foot a lot more. So we were hopeful that he had turned the corner. Jason actually told me after the game that he was glad we didn’t score (touchdowns) and we had to kick field goals. So maybe it was a good omen.”
We’ll find out soon enough.