ORLANDO — Here, on a lumpy practice field in front of a crowd of two children and a city maintenance crew, one of the most accurate placekickers in the NFL works on reviving his career. The sounds of practice are familiar, but the world looks different from this side of glory.
About 90 miles down the road, an NFL team is off to its worst start in nearly 25 years, and its stadium has never looked so empty. The team has used two placekickers who have combined for the fewest field goals and the most misses in the league.
It seems they could help each other, this kicker and this team.
So why are Matt Bryant and the Buccaneers so far apart?
The answer is not simple. I'm not even sure it exists in an absolute truth sort of way. It is a story that changes depending on the context and the interpretation. Mostly, it changes depending on the emotional investment.
The Bucs cut ties with Bryant more than six weeks ago, ending the most successful kicking tenure in Tampa Bay history. The Bucs have portrayed it as a football decision necessitated by Bryant's hamstring injury in the preseason. Bryant, whose .831 field goal percentage is the best in Bucs history, says it had more to do with some pointed comments he made on a radio show.
There appears to be truth to both sides, perhaps more than either would like to publicly admit. But no matter where you point the blame, both have suffered from the fallout.
Bryant has spent the past two weeks with the Florida Tuskers of the UFL, hoping to impress some NFL team. The Bucs wasted more than $2 million on Mike Nugent, and now have Shane Andrus, who has never kicked a field goal in an NFL game.
"What makes it hard is the feeling that I should be out there. I look around the league, and I feel like I'm one of the best kickers out there. At least my stats have proved I'm pretty reliable," Bryant said. "I thought what I did on the field was pretty justifiable.
"But I guess it wasn't for the new GM."
This is where the story gets sticky. Bryant says it was general manager Mark Dominik's decision to release him, and Bryant believes it was because of an interview he did with morning show hosts Fisher and Boy on WSUN-FM 97.1 (97X) the day before the preseason finale.
Bryant, 34, seemed to suggest he wasn't getting a fair shot at the job. He also ridiculed Nugent's preseason performance, and mocked his $2.5 million in salary and bonus. A day later, Bryant said Dominik told him he would not kick as expected in the final preseason game.
Bryant now seems to regret his comments, but only to a certain degree. At the time, he was angry Nugent had been offered a contract twice the size of his own $1.2 million deal.
"If you go back and look at that interview, what is there for anybody to be mad at?" Bryant said. "They asked who was going to be the kicker, and I said it could be me, it could be him, it could be somebody else. I said, 'That's your $2.5 million kicker.' I shouldn't have said that. But did I lie? No. You have to look at where I was coming from. I'd been with the organization for four years. I tried to be a positive aspect in the community. My performance on the field, I felt, warranted some respect, some confidence.
"When they signed him, I felt it was a vote of no confidence and a lack of respect."
Bryant has a point considering his body of work, and the size of Nugent's contract. On the other hand, he handled the situation poorly. Bryant has been in the league long enough to know competition for roster spots is a way of life, and he knew better than to criticize a teammate in public.
Did the radio interview play a part in his release? Yes, according to someone in the Bucs front office.
But, the team insists, it wasn't the only factor. There were fears the injury could linger. And there were performance issues too. Based on percentages from 2005-08, Bryant was an above average kicker from 49 yards and shorter. He was well below average from 50 yards and beyond. His career field-goal percentage is 13th in league history.
So do both sides have legitimate arguments? I suppose. But at this point it seems pride and stubbornness are bigger factors.
Once Nugent flamed out, it was clear the Bucs needed stability. Bryant's agent called seeking a second chance. Bryant says the call was never returned. That is simply ridiculous.
Perhaps the Bucs were upset by Bryant's mouth, but does that mean he should be forever banished? The team has no problem with Aqib Talib and his various digressions. It has no problem with Tanard Jackson and his substance abuse problem. But Bryant is persona non grata because he gave an ill-advised interview when he was frustrated about a teammate's contract?
Bryant appears to have proven he is healthy with the Tuskers, hitting 3-of-4 field goals in two games. And his track record suggests he is a much safer choice than Andrus. So why would the Bucs make a move without even working Bryant out?
For his part, Bryant says he has no interest in calling Dominik to clear the air. That, too, is regrettable. Both sides seem all too willing to toss aside a successful four-year partnership.
Bryant still lives in Tampa but says he will move on as soon as an NFL team calls. He has had feelers from two teams, but was not signed after a workout with Cleveland.
"It's sad and unfortunate the way it ended. I'm still shaking my head. But that's okay, life goes on and I'll end up somewhere else," Bryant said. "I always thought it was going to be hard to leave Tampa. Maybe it won't be as hard as I thought."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]