Why the Buccaneers shouldn't give up on kicker Roberto Aguayo just yet

You might have heard: Roberto Aguayo's 2016 season didn't go so well. But don't write him off just yet. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
You might have heard: Roberto Aguayo's 2016 season didn't go so well. But don't write him off just yet. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published May 31 2017
Updated June 1 2017

The backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town.

Except in Tampa Bay.

Here, the most popular guy is the second kicker.

Yep, Nick Folk.

Throw him a parade. Present him the key to the city. Name a sandwich after him.

And while we're at it, let's give him Roberto Aguayo's job.

Whoa. Slow down. The season is three months away. Maybe we should let this kicking competition unfold first.

RELATED STORY: Aguayo faces stiff test to keep job

This is not a defense of the Buccaneers' decision to draft Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. That was a mistake. Tampa Bay admitted as much when it signed Folk in March to compete for the starting job. You don't do that when you believe you have your kicker for the next decade.

The Bucs deserve credit for considering options despite the draft capital they spent on the former Florida State Seminole. One also could argue that they're being reactionary, which is the very mind-set that led to Aguayo's selection.

RELATED STORY: Can Aguayo make the Bucs a winner? The numbers are clear.

About this time last year, general manager Jason Licht talked about how he wanted a long-term answer at kicker.

"I'm not going to risk (not) getting him and then have to go through a kicking carousel again during my tenure," he said, explaining his decision to trade up to get Aguayo. "I want to get the best kicker."

And yet here we are, monitoring practice kicks. (The biggest news to come out of the first day of organized team activities last week was that Aguayo missed three of his four kicks while Folk made all four.)

RELATED STORY: Folk focused on own performance, not competition

The problem, though, might not be Aguayo's leg, or even his head.

It might be us. It might be how we measure kicker performance and the weight we give to that measurement.

We reduce a kicker to one number: field-goal percentage.

Aguayo's last season — 71 percent — was the league's worst. He connected on 36 percent of attempts from 40 or more yards. His longest field goal was 43 yards.

It's a red flag, for sure. But it's not cause for a pink slip.

That's because field-goal percentage is one of football's most random statistics. It can be wildly inconsistent from season to season. As Football Outsiders editor Aaron Schatz wrote in the New York Times in November 2006, "There is effectively no correlation between a kicker's field-goal percentage one season and his field-goal percentage the next."

Scan last season's field-goal percentage leaderboard. Only the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka and the Colts' Adam Vinatieri also were in the top 10 the season before. There's similar turnover every season.

One explanation is small sample size. In some cases, three misses is all it takes to cost a kicker 10 percentage points.

Still, even the most venerable kickers experience dramatic swings from season to season. Take Vinatieri, future Hall of Famer. A paragon of consistency, right?

Nope.

Drop Vinatieri's field-goal percentages into a chart and you get something that looks like a seismogram. Over his 21 seasons, he has finished with a field-goal percentage below the league average one-third of the time.

There are a couple of Aguayo-like seasons in there. In 2003, Vinatieri made just nine of 17 field-goal attempts of 30-plus yards. In 2007, he attempted three kicks of 40-plus yards. He missed them all. His longest field goal that season was 39 yards.

Vinatieri isn't the only example. Stephen Gostkowski, the kicker the Patriots drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft to replace Vinatieri, didn't hit 90 percent of his field goals in consecutive seasons until 2013, 2014 and 2015. Last season, he was merely average.

What about the veteran aiming for Aguayo's job? There's no guarantee that even if Folk were to win the starting job that he would be a significant upgrade. His field-goal percentage bottomed out at 64 percent in 2009 and peaked at 92 percent in 2013. He has been worse than the league average in six of his 10 seasons.

Florida State alumnus Sebastian Janikowski has not provided the kind of consistency you would expect from a kicker the Raiders drafted 17th overall in 2000. Like Folk, he has finished with a below-average field-goal percentage in more than half his seasons.

Aguayo's field-goal percentage doesn't completely tell the story of his rookie season. It doesn't tell you that Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, in a way, replaced his wayward kicker with his outstanding punter. Late in the season, he chose to play for field position instead of points and in turn limited Aguayo's long-range opportunities.

In the closing minutes of the Bucs' Week 14 game against the Saints, Tampa Bay reached the New Orleans 35. A 53-yard field goal would have given the Bucs an eight-point lead and virtually guaranteed that they couldn't lose in regulation.

Koetter kept Aguayo on the sideline and sent in the punt unit. The decision paid off. Bryan Anger pinned the Saints inside the 5, and six plays later, safety Keith Tandy intercepted Drew Brees to seal Tampa Bay's eighth win of the season. It was a textbook example of complementary football.

Afterward, the coach maintained he had total confidence in his field-goal kicker.

"If we're in range, and we need to kick, we kick," he said.

Underline it. Bold it. Italicize it. If we're in range.

When the Bucs drafted Aguayo, they called it a bold move, and no bold move comes without risk. The question is how much they can tolerate that risk, especially if they feel they have a playoff-caliber team.

They're wise to hedge their investment in Aguayo. They'd be wise to be patient, too. Otherwise, they might find themselves in the same position next season — trying to manage a kicking carousel with no end in sight.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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