TAMPA — To fully understand the tenuous life of an NFL kicker, look no further than Mike Nugent, the man seeking to give Bucs incumbent Matt Bryant the boot.
If not for a flukish thigh strain in the season opener last year, Nugent would most likely be preparing for his fifth season with the Jets. After all, he had been nothing short of stellar in his three seasons with the team that drafted him in the second round in 2005 out of Ohio State.
Nugent already ranked fourth in franchise history with 75 field goals, had been named special teams captain in 2007 and established career highs that season with 29 field goals in 36 attempts (after 24 of 27 in 2006 and 22 of 28 as a rookie).
But in New York's first game of 2008, amid the circus atmosphere surrounding quarterback Brett Favre, Nugent felt a tweak in his right thigh on the opening kickoff against the Dolphins. He left the game after missing a 32-yard field goal in the first quarter, returned to kick an extra point in the third — and would never attempt another kick for the Jets.
Nugent was replaced by veteran free agent Jay Feeley, who made the most of his opportunity and kept the job even when Nugent was healthy enough to return after eight games.
"It was really frustrating," Nugent said after a recent workout at One Buc Place. "Fortunately, I've been very lucky with injuries in my career — I'd never been hurt before. It was really tough watching all my teammates work so hard and not being able to be in there with them."
Nugent, 27, attributed his injury to a change in his offseason routine, in which he kicked much more than usual. "I like to stick to a routine, but we did a lot more kicking, and I did things I didn't normally do," he said. "The wear and tear on my leg just finally took a toll. It was hard because I was really looking forward to the season as an established veteran."
Instead, Nugent experienced the flip side of a kicker's existence. He worked out quietly on his own, then passed on the Jets' offer to re-sign this year and compete with Feeley. Instead, he opted for free agency as one of the top kickers on the market. Several teams expressed interest, but Nugent was attracted to Tampa Bay because of his comfort level with special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.
"I got to know him at the Senior Bowl when I was coming out of college, and I got to meet a few of the coaches who are on the staff today," he said. "So I didn't feel like I was coming into a completely new place. That was a factor."
New coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have stressed that no starting job is guaranteed, so Nugent will come into camp on equal footing with Bryant. The Bucs veteran, who turns 34 on Friday, has been a big contributor since 2005, remembered for his 62-yard winning field goal against the Eagles in 2006 and his perseverance after the death of his 3-month-old son in September.
Bryant converted a career-high 32 field goals (in 38 tries) last season. But former coach Jon Gruden seemed reluctant to use him in certain long-distance situations, and the new regime will make Bryant earn his job in 2009. To Morris, it's all about results.
"That just gets back to our competitive edge," he said. "All these guys are here competing. You snap the ball, you tee it up and you let them kick. And the guy who puts it between those two yellow bars the most wins. … I'm looking forward to the competition."
There's no animosity or awkwardness between the kickers. "Things are great with me and Matt," Nugent said. "We actually met my rookie year, when the Bucs played the Jets in New York. Then we played down in Tampa in the preseason, so I got to know him a little bit more. Kickers really have their own fraternity — it's great how everyone treats each other, even if it's a playoff game. It's amazing how supportive kickers are of each other."
Because they never know what the next kick may bring. It's an unpredictable life, even for a player who set or tied 22 records at Ohio State, earned All-America honors and won the Lou Groza Award in 2004 as the country's best kicker; even for a player who looked like a longtime Jet until a muscle strain changed everything.
"When you're a kicker, you know that you're going to see adversity," he said. "You have to be able to handle it in the right way and keep a positive attitude. I'm a big believer in when one door closes, another has a very good chance of opening up."