Tuesday, 4 a.m.
For the longest time, there were tiny demons in his brain. They had sharp teeth.
He would line up to kick a field goal, and the little devils would start to eat. They would chew away at his swagger, his confidence. They would gnaw on his self-believe. They would gorge, and they would feast, and they took the parts of Roberto Aguayo and turned him into Kyle Brindza.
It had happened before. The little gremlins would take a perfectly good kicker, someone who had proven he had those special nerves, and they would turn him into silly putty. That's part of the reason that coaches think that all kickers are a little bit crazy. That, and the fact that, for some reason, former kickers are
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never special teams coaches. A kicker is going well? Let him kick. A kicker is going bad. Make him kick. That's the gamut of what special teams coaches know.
So it was in Aguayo's head. He flubbed his way through training camp, where he was capable of missing the planet earth on some of his kicks. Early in the season, Aguayo had the fans scurrying for cover. And those were the ones on the 20-yard line.
Yes, Aguayo was awful. He looked like one of those halftime contestants who has never tried a field goal before. It was liable to be left, to be right, or to be plunk the post. It wasn't likely to be either straight or long.
And then he snapped out of it.
For a while, no one noticed, because Aguayo wasn't that far removed from failure. He was Peter Rajecki, the guy who said that John McKay made him nervous. “I intend on making all the games,” McKay said. He was Bill Capece, who was kaput.
Remember when Aguayo hit that winning field goal against Carolina earlier in the season? No one was really pumped, because it made Aguayo only three-for-five for the night.
Since that night, Aguayo has been splendid. Counting that kick, he's made 10 of his last 11 field goals. He's made 14 of 15 extra points. He's been everything you want in a kicker. But he has the demons inside (most kickers do), which still leaves fans a little nervous.
Ah, but that beats being bad, which is what he was early. Maybe it was a by-product of so many people talking about how badly the Bucs' overspent for him. Never mind that the Bucs' intelligence (words seldom used together) told them that another team was trying to trade up to get him. Never mind that the Bucs really, really wanted him and knew he'd never last until their next pick.
The difference in how Aguayo is kicking now and how he kicked earlier?
“I think just mostly between his ears,” Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. “I think he got shaken, confidence-wise, a little bit there with some misses. That’s one thing about the NFL, is you hear about it from all sides. You hear about it from the coaches, from the fans, from the media, of course, you get hammered. For a young guy, that can rattle your bones a little bit.
“I think he just went back to the basics, worked on his routine, really cleaned up his mental approach. I think he was a little bit all over the place with how he was approaching his kicks, to use a golf term, what his ‘swing thought’ was or thoughts, maybe having too many. He seems to be hitting the ball much better now and was clutch yesterday.”
And so Tampa Bay drafted Aguayo, and the fans went nuts. There was that famous anonymous (naturally) quote that called it the dumbest pick any team had ever made, even though this is the league of JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith and countless others.
Hey, if Aguayo missed every kick — every one — he wouldn't have even been the biggest mistake the Bucs have made in the second round. How about Booker Reese, who had two sacks? How about Dexter Jackson, who didn't catch a pass on a team that was hungry for receivers? How about Sabby Piscatelli? And so on.
Look, Aguayo isn't the first kicker to struggle early in his career.
To repeat myself: Sebastian Janikowski, who was a No. 1 draft pick, missed three of his first five kicks. Steve Little was the 15th overall pick. He was cut in his third season after missing five of eight field goals. Russell Erxleben was a No. 1 draft pick (11th overall), but was hurt on his first field goal try. He hit only four of eight kicks in his career. The highest drafted kicker was Charlie Gogolak, who was fifth overall in 1964. His second year, he was only one of four on field goals.
Jerry DePoyster was a No. 2 pick of the Lions but hit only three of 15 field goals. Chris Bahr, a No. 2 pick in 1975, missed two of his first three kicks. Mike Nugent, a No. 2 draft pick by the Jets, missed six field goals his rookie year. John Lee, a high No. 2 draft pick, missed five and was gone after a year.
Adam Viniteri went one-for-four in his second game. Jason Hanson? A No. 2 draft pick by Detroit, he went three-for-six in his first three games. Chip Lohmiller, a No. 2 draft pick by Washington, missed seven field goals his rookie year.
For most of the year, fans frowned when Aguayo went onto the field. But all a kicker can do is make the next one. For a while now, Aguayo has done that.
Hey, we're intelligent creatures. None of us expect a kicker to make them all. But don't miss when the game is on the line. Miss in the second quarter, on a 54-yard attempt with a scary cross-wind. Hail wouldn't hurt.
For a change, however, Aguayo looks like a keeper. He looks like a way to win a game.
Just keep the demons at bay. His, and ours.