The under-appreciated Buccaneers
Close games in the NFL are difference between being good and great. The Buccaneers have an excellent record when the game is decided by a small number of points. This isn't a fluke but certain players are key to this. Everyone talks about the star players on any NFL roster, and the Buccaneers are no different.
If you ask anyone with a passing interest in the NFL to name a Buccaneers player you'd get the odd Ronde Barber, a few Josh Freemans and a number of Gerald McCoys. Some names you wouldn't hear would be Connor Barth, Robert Malone and Andrew Economos.
These three players are the true specialist positions on the Buccaneers team and without them the Bucs wouldn't be able to do have done half the things they have done this season.
Over the last few years Tampa Bay have had more kickers than they have loses this year. From long term kicker Matt Bryant to Mike Nugent, many have come, tried and eventually failed to secure the kicking job on a long term basis.
What Connor Barth has bought to the Buccaneers is a level of consistency that they have not had since the best years of Martin "FUAT" Gramatica. Connor Barth's accuracy, especially inside the forty yard distance, has been amongst the league's best in the recent years. He has also hit a number of late game winners, not least in the Superdome to beat the would-be Super Bowl champion Saints last year.
Unlike some kickers in the league, like the previously mentioned Matt Bryant (now in Atlanta), Barth also deals with kickoff duties for the Pewter Pirates and although not someone who is going to kick through the back of the endzone on the regular basis but Barth is an excellent positional kicker and can kick to a plan.
He is even at home in the Buccaneers trick playbook and very nearly pulled off the cutest of onside kicks earlier this year in Atlanta. By having someone who the Bucs can rely on for three points if/when a drive stalls they can be confident of putting points on the board against any team and keeping them in close, gritty games like Sunday's.
As many kickers as the Buccaneers have had the punter's job has been up for grabs just as much, if not more. Since punting legend Josh Bidwell was moved along as part of the front office's get younger policy the Buccaneers have drafted and released a punter, signed and released an Aussie Rules Football player and now settled on Robert Malone.
Malone was noted to have a large leg in tryouts for the punting job but has proved a massive asset for the Bucs. Malone has kept opposing Offenses starting from their own territory on nearly every drive this season, with a number of his punts being downed under five yards out from the opposing endzone. This allows Raheem Morris to be a lot more aggressive in his play-calling and allows the likes of Gerald McCoy to play for sacks rather than in coverage.
A punter's job is not just to provide good field position for the team but also to hold the ball on field goal attempts. This may sound easy but all kickers have a desired position, angle and side of the ball to kick and it is up to Malone to ensure that however the ball reaches him by the time that Connor Barth has taken three steps that ball is laces out, on a ten degree angle etc. That is a lot responsibility but if you look at how many of the Buccaneers field goal attempts have had a problem with the hold, you'll find its zero.
The third, and probably most important, man in all of these plays is long snapper Andrew Economos. He does nothing on the team bar snap the ball. That's it. The punter stands fifteen yards back and the long snapper has to hit his hands from a view that is exclusively between his legs with a full rush coming at him with his head down.
If you're not good at this and can get the ball off and get your head up before the one mississippi count you get before anyone can hit you, then you are going to get hurt. Badly. We're talking broken neck hurt. If the long snap on a field goal is not right then the holder (punter) cannot do his part and the points don't come from your kicker.
I speak from first hand experience as the long snapper for the Bristol Apache and it is not easy. It might be one small job on a football team but without a good long snapper the team won't get field position and won't pick up the points to keep you in close games.
We all love to see big pass plays or people getting runover by our running backs but lets not forget Barth, Malone and Economos as they can't have an off day and for the Buccaneers this season they haven't let us down.