By Greg Auman | Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Over the past 12 days, the escalating struggles of rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo have become the biggest story of Bucs training camp.
In his first preseason game, he missed an extra point. In his second, he missed two field goals.
And Tuesday, during a joint practice with the Browns, he missed three kicks, one so badly a national website posted a story on Aguayo with the classic cartoon of Charlie Brown flying in midair, with Lucy pulling the ball away at the last second.
That certainly was the reaction among some fans who packed One Buc Place for the practices open only to season-ticket holders. Aguayo's worst miss prompted head-shaking, groans and some boos.
It's still nearly three weeks until Aguayo's first real NFL game, but his continued struggles, combined with the intense scrutiny given to the Bucs' decision to trade up into the second round to draft him, have made him a national headline, or worse, a punchline.
The Bucs, meanwhile, are trying to remain positive and minimize the circus surrounding the 22-year-old, who didn't miss a kick from inside 40 yards during his career at Florida State.
"He's struggling," coach Dirk Koetter conceded after Tuesday's practice. "He's struggling a little bit right now. He has to work his way through it. We've talked to him. He knows what he has to do. He's working through it."
When Aguayo missed the 33-yard PAT on the first touchdown of the season, Koetter joked about the miss a day later.
"We knew there was going to be a huge outcry whenever he missed his first kick," he said. "So he actually missed that on purpose, so we could just get it over with."
By Saturday night in Jacksonville, when he missed a 32-yard field goal and another from 49 yards against the Jaguars, it wasn't as funny.
"It shouldn't happen with me," Aguayo said after the game. "You just have to fix it and keep moving on. I feel like that's what preseason games are for, to get the young guys rolling in, to keep working, keep getting better."
Aguayo did okay in one pressure situation on Tuesday — Koetter said he'd end practice early if Aguayo could hit a 50-yard field goal. He did.
But Aguayo still faces more pressure than perhaps any kicker to enter the NFL in 16 years. The Raiders took FSU's Sebastian Janikowski in the first round in 2000, but that was before social media had fans getting live updates on every miss at every open practice.
While Aguayo was missing kicks Tuesday morning, the next field over saw Browns kicker Pat Murray, cut by the Bucs shortly after Aguayo was drafted, go 4-for-4 on kicks.
Aguayo signed a four-year contract worth just over $4 million, including more than $2 million fully guaranteed. Draft picks get cut every year, but rarely as high as the second round. There's little chance the Bucs would release Aguayo — if his struggles continue into the regular season, the Bucs could sign another kicker and make him inactive, as seven players on the 53-man roster are every week.
Asked if the Bucs would bring in another kicker in preseason, Koetter suggested it was a better question for general manager Jason Licht, who has ultimate control over the roster.
After Saturday's game, quarterback Jameis Winston, a teammate of Aguayo's at FSU, offered support, suggesting that Aguayo was only "teasing" fans and would soon be back to his reliable, consistent self.
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy echoed that support after Tuesday's practice, saying he struggled to live up to the high expectations of where he was drafted (No. 3 overall in 2010) before he became a Pro Bowl player in his third season.
"One thing I've done with him is go to him and encourage him. He's a rookie," McCoy said. "He was drafted high as a kicker, so a lot of expectations come with that with being the guy. Who better than me to go talk to him about being drafted high and being expected to be the guy right away? Especially with me struggling the way I did early on with injuries and not living up to expectations, who better to go talk to him? I just go encourage him and say 'Hey, listen, stay the course. It'll come along.' "
There are encouraging precedents for many of today's top NFL kickers struggling at the start of their careers, but there's also the lingering question for Bucs fans: What if Aguayo never works out these problems?
There are precedents for that. In 1995, the Rams drafted kicker Steve McLaughlin in the third round, and he lasted only one season, going 8-for-16 on field goals. In 1968, the Lions used a second-round pick on Jerry DePoyster, who went 3-for-15 on field goals as a rookie and never attempted another one.
Koetter said Tuesday he believes Aguayo's problems are mental, and that Aguayo believes that as well, rather than any mechanical issue. On Saturday, Koetter conceded he was ill-equipped as a coach to fix a kicker.
"I don't know what's wrong with Roberto right now," he said. "It is the preseason. It's the time to work it out, but I'm not the guy that can help him. I'm not that guy."