He benefited from the Matt Bryant curse on the Bucs. Now he’s out to reverse it

Former Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong saw Bryant make 88.7 percent of his field goal attempts the past decade. Can he find a kicker for the Bucs?
Atlanta Falcons kicker Matt Bryant (3) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Atlanta Falcons kicker Matt Bryant (3) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Published January 12
Updated January 12

TAMPA —Nobody benefited from the Bucs' release of kicker Matt Bryant more than Keith Armstrong.

Armstrong lived the reverse of the curse.

For the past 10 seasons, Armstrong has coached special teams for the Falcons. While Bryant — who signed with Atlanta after the Bucs released him in 2009 — was connecting on 88.7 percent of his 282 field-goal attempts, the Bucs' collection of 11 wayward kickers made only 77.3 percent of 300 during that time.

Tampa Bay also has missed 11 extra-points tries since the NFL in 2015 moved the spot for the ball to the 15-yard line from the 2.

Bryant underscored the Bucs' 2009 mistake this season.

The 43-year-old boomed a 57-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining in the game in a 34-29 win over Tampa Bay at Atlanta on Oct. 14. Then Bryant hit a winning 37-yard field goal as time expired in Atlanta's 34-32 win at Tampa in the Dec. 30 season finale.

Now it's Armstrong's turn to see how the other half has died. As the Bucs' new special teams coach under Bruce Arians, he inherits a decade of doinks off the uprights.

So what can he do to correct the Bucs' legacy of crooked legs left by Mike Nugent, Shane Andrus, Connor Barth, Rian Lindell, Pat Murray, Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro and Cairo Santos?

Armstrong knows the importance of a good kicker.

"Big time,'' he said. "They win games, you know what I mean?''

In 2004, Armstrong was Miami's special-teams coach when the Dolphins hired Bryant as a fill-in while Olindo Mare healed from a thigh injury.

"When Olindo Mare came back at Miami and we finished the season, I'm sitting there saying, 'Huh, did we keep the right guy?' '' Armstrong recalled Friday. "Then Bryant comes up (to the Bucs). As soon as we went to Atlanta and Bryant was let go here, I went right in and got him, and he was the right guy.''

A quick lesson on how the Bucs' kicking curse began. Bryant kicked for the Bucs from 2005-08, making 83.1 percent of his field-goal tries. But in 2009, when the Bucs made Mark Dominik their general manager, Dominik signed Nugent to a $2.5 million contract, including bonuses, about double what Bryant was earning.

Bryant had a hamstring strain but had been told he would kick in the preseason finale. That was before he went on a bay area radio show and voiced his disappointment in his competition with Nugent.

Shortly after the interview, Bryant was told he would not kick in the final preseason game and Nugent had won the job. The Bucs noted that Bryant had made only 2 of 10 field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards at that point in his career; they presumably wanted a stronger leg.

The Bucs' loss was Armstrong's gain. But now he's tasked with finding Tampa Bay's next kicker.

Leg strength and accuracy are important.

"When you look at the three guys I've had in Atlanta, (long snapper) Josh Harris was a wrestler,'' Armstrong said. "So to me, toughness. You say, 'Why a wrestler?' Well, you ever wrestle before? They're tough people. … Physically and mentally tough people.

"(Punter) Matt Bosher … was a soccer player. But Matt Bosher was getting into fights in the locker room. … So, toughness.

"Now you get to Matt and you say, 'What's the one thing that jumps out at you about Matt?' Matt's tough, and he's not afraid of the moment."

Consider the resources the Bucs have invested in kickers. They traded third and fourth-round draft picks to move into the second round and draft Aguayo in 2016. They paid Folk $1.75 million for four games and a 2-of-5 field-goal performance in 2017. Catanzaro walked away with $3.75 million for going 11-of-15 on field and with four missed point-after tries in nine games. Santos went 9-of-12 on field goals but is a free agent.

"It's not just the leg,'' Armstrong said. 'There's a lot of guys that have talent. … Boy, you go to some of these high school camps and guys are blowing the ball over the fence. You're like, 'Wow.' So you're like, "Okay, let's do it for $1,000, just to put something at stake.' Okay, now there's a result. Now, what starts to happen?"

Armstrong could be one of the most important hires for the Bucs. Special teams have not been a strength for them, but Armstrong always has admired the speed Tampa Bay ha put on the field.

His relationship with Arians brought him here. Armstrong, 55, started as a freshman running back for Arians at Temple but was replaced the next year by Paul Palmer, a future first-round pick of the Chiefs. Armstrong moved to fullback and completed his four years at Temple, when Arians asked him to become a graduate assistant in 1987.

"I was already a grinder,'' Armstrong said. "He was looking for tough guys. He was trying to run us off, and he couldn't run me off."

Now Armstrong is entrusted with, among other things, breaking the curse he benefited from.

One other thing about Armstrong's philosophy: He sees the long snapper, punter and kicker as specialists. They have to earn their way on to the rest of the team.

"I tell those guys, don't try to be a part of the team,'' Armstrong said. "Don't try to fit in with the team. This is your area. Stay in your area. But you've got to do your job. The team will come to you. Don't try to chase the team. Make the team come to you.''

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.