Tuesday, 4 a.m.
Imagine the pressure. Imagine the wolverines clawing at the inside of your stomach. Imagine a dry mouth and wet palms. Imagine the noise, the booing and heckling, and wondering if any of it was coming from your own sideline.
Imagine being Roberto Aguayo, and staring down a field goal that meant, well, everything.
In the booth, Jon Gruden was saying that this could be the deciding kick in Aguayo's career. He had missed, and missed again in a season of misses. His team, down to castoffs and leftovers, had the defending NFC champions on the ropes.
Imagine the angst among Bucs' fans. Imagine the loneliness of the field goal
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kicker. Imagine a season, and possibly a career, in the balance. When Aguayo missed his second field goal, it almost forced Bucs fans to load torches and pitchforks into their trucks and light out for Carolina. All at once, Aguayo was Booker Reese and Sabby Piscitelli and Dexter Jackson and Lars Tate and Demetrious Dubose and Melvin Johnson and Brian Price and all those other wasted second-round picks.Imagine the doubters and the skeptics and the cynics who would have just as soon tried a Hail Mary pass as a kick.
And then imagine Roberto Aguayo kicking a 38-yard field goal, straight and true, through the uprights, through a second look at a season, 17-14. It was a kick that earned new life for a wayward franchise and a wobbly kicker.
Redemption? Well, not quite. Aguayo is still a 43 percent kicker in an 80 percent league. He dodged the knife this week, but they'll throw it again next week. You get the feeling that even Dirk Koetter's patience is wearing thin.
For instance, Koetter was asked how close his team had to get before he was comfortable with Aguayo.
“I wasn't comfortable,” he said. “We couldn't have got close enough.
“I am happy that he made it and that is awesome that he made it but we can’t miss those field goals. What do you want me to say? We can’t miss those. That could have lost us the game, I’m happy that he made the other one.
By now, Aguayo has to be feeling his coach's mistrustful eyes, too. Good for him for making the kick, but his personal comeback isn't over yet. In victory, fans will eventually embrace you. But with Aguayo, not yet. He is still the kicker on the banana peel. He is still Kyle Brindza. He is still Bill Capece.
"It meant the world,'' Aguayo said. "I knew it was coming. That’s what complimentary football is. Jameis (Winston) and his guys get me in field goal range. They’re going out there and we won it – again. Not the game I wanted to have, but at the end of the day we made the one that counted and got the “W” so that was all.
“Honestly, how the game was turning out I was thinking this could come down to the game- winner. For some reason before the game started I was like this might have a game winning field goal. You can’t even paint a different story line with how the game went about and everything and missing a couple of kicks then going out there and making the one that counted.”'
A cynic might point out that if Aguayo had made his earlier kicks, he wouldn't have needed the last one. Still, winning is winning, even if it will take Aguayo more time to kick his way out the hole.
“When y'all talk about struggles all I see is him kicking the game-winning field goal,” said Bucs quarterack Jameis Winston. “Struggling, I don’t hear that. I don’t hear negatives. I just hear Roberto Aguayo kicking the game-winning field goal.
Still, Aguayo's kick allowed you to forgive, and to forget, some of the Bucs other shortcomings on Monday night. That ridiculous roughing-the-punter penalty on Howard Jones? Just a detail. The fact that Panthers' tight end Greg Olson kept turning invisible in the Bucs' secondary? A footnote, that's all. The inexcusable play call on third and nine, when the Bucs ran the ball to set up a missed field goal? An afterthought. The two blown third-and-ones, stopped by presnap penalties? An inconvenience.
Then there are the things that Aguayo's kick underlined. The sensational running game by Jaquizz Rodgers (101 yards). The fourth game-winning drive of Jameis Winston's career. The defensive line, where the members were introducing each other in the huddle.
How big can a week five game be? This one was as large as you can imagine. There is such a difference in the NFL between 1-4 and 2-3. One, it's time to start thinking about the draft. Two, it's time to start thinking about a playoff run.
All in all, it was the Bucs' most impressive win in years, maybe since a 27-24 win over Pittsburgh in 2014. The Bucs simply haven't beaten a lot of good teams lately; Thirteen of their last fourteen games coming into this year were against teams without winning records.
Granted, Carolina is only 1-4. But the Panthers were 15-1 last year, and they had won twice in a row with backup quarterback Derek Anderson against the Bucs.
A win like this changes things. Sure, the Bucs have played horribly in San Francisco. But does Blaine Gabbert scare you? The Raiders are good, but they're in the Bucs' neighborhood.
There are quality teams ahead – the Seahawks, the Chiefs – but the Bucs may get new consideration after this.
The Bucs won a football game Monday night. But they won something more. They finally beat somebody. They finally earned a measure of respect. And perhaps that change of culture that Koetter has talked about can finally start to blossom.
All because of a kicker who, amazingly, did not miss.
Next game, perhaps he will. Next game, perhaps the Bucs will lose. That's what keeps us tuning in.
For a day, however, the Bucs won a game that feels as it might start something. This time, the kick was straight. This time, the team was, too.