TAMPA— For some fans, there have been years when it seemed as if Chris Conte was their favorite punch line. Then he started punching back.
Now 29, the Bucs' starting safety is playing his best football, coach Dirk Koetter says.
Take Friday night's preseason game against the Lions. Though he played only a half, Conte had six tackles, including a touchdown-saving stop of receiver Kenny Golladay after a 36-yard gain.
It was the kind of athletic, hustle play that many fans would take for granted. It's also one that some might blame Conte for, simply because he was the closest player to the receiver though another defensive back blew the coverage.
"He's better than you think he is, that's what I'll say,'' Koetter said. "That's an example right there where most fans watching that from the sideline would think that was (Conte's) play just because he ended up being the deepest guy. When you look at the tape and then you know what happened, really what it was was Chris Conte saved us four points right there. His hustle saved us four points.
"I think Chris Conte's playing the best football in the four years that I've been associated with him. … There's plenty of examples of what people think and then what reality is, and we can't do anything about that. But Chris is a better football player than a lot of people think he is."
Need proof? Conte signed a two-year, $5 million contract last season, and the Bucs picked up the second-year option. They don't give away money in the NFL or give you a job for eight seasons, including his first four in the league with the Bears.
Yet during the game Friday, @JaYbaKe posted on Twitter, "Watching the Lions @ Bucs game, and if you Bears fans are wondering, Chris Conte is still a bum.''
@chris17974430 posted, "Chris Conte is arguably one of the worst DB we ever had smh.''
@NickJP216 posted, "Can someone explain to me why Chris Conte is starting at safety still?''
And so it goes. Defensive backs have to have short memories, and Conte has learned mostly to ignore the noise.
But sometimes he will respond. When the Bucs drafted Pittsburgh safety Jordan Whitehead in April, @BucTillDie wrote on Twitter, "So pumped, somewhere Chris Conte is freaking out. Glad he won't see the field much longer.''
To which Conte responded, "I'm at home annnnd currently not freaking out … but … Congrats on your new ownership of the Bucs!''
Conte was asked about the constant trolling he endures on social media.
"I don't really care what other people think,'' he said. "I'm just going out there and doing my job and feeling comfortable. People are going to be people. I'm going to live my life, and they can live their life. That's how I approach it.''
Life has never been better for Conte. His girlfriend of three years, Stephanie Everett, gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte, their first child, 10 months ago. It happened while Conte was playing in the third quarter of a game at Arizona on Oct. 15.
On the field, Conte has never gotten credit for the numbers he has posted. In the past three seasons, he has 226 tackles, five interceptions, 19 passes defensed and five forced fumbles. That's more tackles than AFC Pro Bowl safety Micha Hyde of the Bills. It's more forced fumbles than Eagles Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Having time in coordinator Mike Smith's defensive scheme has helped Conte.
"I think confidence is a good word for it,'' Koetter said. "I'm sure being in the same system, now going into three years, also helps. But I think confidence is probably the biggest thing. I think Chris, as he's gotten older and more experienced … (has) matured some as a player.''
That maturity will be necessary in helping the Bucs' young additions to the secondary, including Whitehead and rookie cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart. Conte's safety partner, Justin Evans, is entering just his second season.
"Every year there's a whole new crop of young guys," Conte said, "and this year I think we have a lot of guys in the DB room. They've done a really good job of drafting guys that are smart (who) can contribute right away, and guys who are going to be really good players, not just from a football aspect, but all-around good guys in the locker room.
"We can be a lot better. There's a lot of moving parts in our defense, so there's a lot of communication that needs to happen. So it's always a work in progress, but any time you have guys that are affecting the quarterback, it makes everyone's job a lot easier.''
For Conte, the biggest thing is the perspective he has gained by having a family and something bigger than football to focus on.
"The way I value things is different as I've gotten older,'' he said. "Having a family, having people that matter to me … I care what they think. I don't care what other people think. As I've gotten older, too, it used to be all about football, and I've realized there's other important things in life, too.
Having a daughter changed everything, he said:
"You completely forget about everything else. You know, you come home tired and don't have any energy, then all of a sudden you see your little girl's face, and shoot, I've got energy. It just comes out of nowhere. I don't know where it comes from. It changes your life.''