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Bucs-Jaguars: Through rough times, kicker Matt Gay sets himself apart from predecessors

Encina’s early read: We can argue over whether the Bucs should have spent a draft pick on Matt Gay, but can we end the comparisons to Roberto Aguayo?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay (9) looks at the uprights before a kick against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 10. The Buccaneers won 30-27.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay (9) looks at the uprights before a kick against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 10. The Buccaneers won 30-27. [ JEFF HAYNES | AP ]
Published Dec. 1, 2019
Updated Dec. 1, 2019

TAMPA — We can keep asking whether Jason Licht should have spent a draft pick on a kicker back in April. But can we stop comparing Matt Gay to Roberto Aguayo?

Drafting Aguayo wasn’t Licht’s only draft mistake, and it wasn’t the only one in the 2016 draft class. But Gay shouldn’t be forever linked to Aguayo simply because some believe the Bucs reached to draft him.

Gay is different. He’s his own man.

Yes, he is coming off a game in which he missed three extra points — two hooked wide left and one was blocked — in the Bucs’ 35-22 win in Atlanta. That’s enough to put a kicker’s job on ice. For an example, look up “Catanzaro, Chandler.”

It’s frustrating to see a kicker miss the easy ones, but one game shouldn’t prompt concern. But it’s understandable when you’ve seen kicker after kicker boot his way out of town.

But here’s where Gay is different. There are few kickers across the league — rookie or veteran — who have made more long field-goal attempts than Gay, and those should be one of the major factors in how a kicker is measured.

On field-goal attempts of 40 yards or longer, Gay is 12 for 14. Entering Week 13, only Carolina’s Joey Slye had made that many kicks from that distance. But Slye’s 66.7 percent success rate (12 for 18) from 40 yards out pales in comparison to Gay’s 85.7 percent success rate. On Thanksgiving, New Orleans’ Will Lutz hit three 40-plus field goals to give him 13.

Overall, Gay has converted 87.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. Aguayo was at 71 percent in his first and only season in Tampa.

“I said that that kick in New York against the Giants would not define his career,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. "He’s a talented kid, he’s overcome it and he’s been very consistent."

And that’s what makes Gay different than Aguayo. In that 32-31 loss to New York, Gay had one extra point go wide left, saw another one get blocked, then made three field goals — including two of 47 yards or longer — before kicking a 34-yarder wide right at the end of regulation.

A game like that could have sent a rookie into a spiral. It didn’t for Gay, who has made 14 of 15 field-goal attempts since.

“It was a mistake for sure,” Gay said. “Obviously I wanted that kick to go in. But it really didn’t have an effect on which way I was going to go. That’s the way I was headed, that’s the way I was determined to go. You wish it didn’t happen, but you say, hey, that kid started me being as good as I’ve been since.”

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For Gay, this season has been about more than putting the ball through the uprights. It’s about blocking out the noise. It’s about remaining grounded. It’s about compartmentalizing. And at 25, Gay has experience with that. He has already been married for a year. And as he was battling incumbent Cairo Santos for the kicking job during the preseason in August, Gay and his wife Millie had their first son, Oliver James.

"One of those things by themselves is a big thing in itself," Gay said. "Moving across the country, that's a big event. Having a baby, that's a big event. Being in the NFL, that's a big event, and it all kind of happened to me in three weeks. ... I'm a family man. I'm a man of God, so if anything, that all helped me. They keep me balanced. They keep me grounded. That's my No. 1 passion, my No. 1 joy, is to take care of my family. If anything, it offers more motivation, it offers more focus. With all the noise, you can kind of get swept up in it, but they keep me grounded."

Gay hopes to rebound from Atlanta today in Jacksonville. And the forecast is calling for winds ranging from 20 to 30 mph, which could certainly affect the kicking game.

“By this point, there should be no such thing as a rookie,” Gay said. “You should be settled in, you should have it figured out, and I think I have settled in. In this league, everyone is held to a higher standard.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard