TAMPA — At nearly every level of football, kickers operate with a unique level of autonomy, practicing alone, or off with the punters and snappers on a separate field, largely away from the offense and defense and the rest of their team.
But as the Bucs move on from a disappointing season and difficult departure for kicker Roberto Aguayo, there's a question to be asked, not of Tampa Bay so much as the entire league: Why do NFL teams not have kicking coaches on their staff?
"My opinion, and this is my opinion only, is that A. There's not a ton of guys that are qualified, and B. In my experience, every kicker falls into one of about six kicking guru circles, and that's who they listen to," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.
"They go there in the offseason and work with their guys."
Very few NFL teams have a coach working exclusively with kickers. Most have a special teams coordinator and an assistant, but they're tasked with all returners, kick coverage and protection units.
The Ravens, coached by former special teams coordinator John Harbaugh, have a kicking coach on staff in Randy Brown. He is part-time enough that he also serves as mayor of a small town in New Jersey. Baltimore has had one of the league's best kickers in Justin Tucker, who has developed into a Pro Bowl talent under Brown.
"It's more of an economic business reason than any other reason," said Tampa's Tom Feely, who has worked with hundreds of kickers over 47 years in coaching. "If you're only going to have two special teams coaches on staff, are you going to use one of those two for one or two players?"
Feely sees positive progress just the same, naming the Ravens, Broncos and Saints as teams having a kicking-specific coach on staff. Feely said some of the lack of coaching attention is a residual effect of kickers being valued less — in the draft, in salary — and being seen as easily replaced.
"I think they look at kickers at pretty interchangeable parts," Feely said. "If one goes bad, it's pretty easy to find another on the market that can slip right in and play two days after they sign a contract."
The Bucs traded up into the second round to draft Aguayo last year, only to see him struggle and finish last in the NFL in field goal percentage (71). His success or failure came under largely the same direction and supervision as most NFL kickers are given.
Former Bucs kicker Michael Husted, who remains the team's No. 2 all-time scorer, now works as a private kicking coach in California. He said his NFL coaches weren't former kickers, but were generally assistants who had been around kickers long enough to spot mistakes: "A good second eye: 'Something doesn't look right there,'" he said.
But 15 years after his retirement, not much has changed for kickers.
"It's considered a lower priority," said Husted, who said he reached out to the Bucs offering his help with Aguayo last year but never got a call back. "It's the nature of the position, from Pop Warner to the NFL. The dedication to put time into it isn't what it should be, but whenever something goes poorly, it becomes an issue."
With kickers working in the offseason with multiple specialists — one for their mechanics perhaps, one for the all-important mental aspect of kicking — Feely said sometimes even the best kickers can be overcoached in the current system, rather than undercoached.
"I've always said you can have too many coaches," he said. "Kickers who do the circuit sometimes listen to too many voices. I 100 percent agree that there comes a point where you need to pick your coach and stick with that guy. The kid has to stay with one technique, find somebody he trusts and block out the others."
That personal loyalty is one reason a team-hired kicking coach might not mesh with every kicker. Nate Kaczor, who played as a long-snapper and has spent nine of his 10 seasons as an NFL assistant on special teams, said his role is to work in conjunction with a kicker's personal coaches.
"The balance is to know what the guy they work with talks about, learn your guy and stay in touch with what they're working on in the offseason," Kaczor said. "Most kicking coaches would not make a lot of adjustments during the season. It's a good balance to have them work with their guys in the offseason and for the special-teams coach to help them synthesize that."
Koetter said the Bucs worked in conjunction with "two or three guys" who worked with Aguayo, and have similar relationships with Folk's coaches as well.
The NFL continues to evaluate how a coaching staff is best comprised, but for most teams, that has not and does not include a kicking coach.
"People that don't agree with that will say 'Every team has a quarterback coach,' but my answer to that is that the quarterback does more than just one thing," Koetter said. "A kicker basically comes down to his stroke, his footwork and his stroke, and I don't think there are a ton of qualified guys out there."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.