TAMPA — They are the only men who put the foot into football, yet they have virtually no job security. Technically, they are like any other player on the team. But they are listed on the roster as specialists, independent contractors who spend most of the day on a separate practice field.
Twelve days before the regular-season opener, the Bucs had three kickers at practice Tuesday — Kyle Brindza, a rookie from Notre Dame who arrived Monday in a trade with the Lions for tight end Tim Wright; Connor Barth, the most reliable kicker in team history who was cut by the Broncos last week; and Patrick Murray, the second-year pro who took Barth's job a year ago but quickly is losing his grip on the gig.
After going 20-of-24 on field goals as a rookie, including five of 50 yards or more, Murray has gone bad like milk. He's 2-of-5 in field goals this preseason, and missed an extra point from the NFL's new, backed-up 33-yard distance. Murray sat out Tuesday's practice with a knee injury, but he knows he needs to kick in Thursday's preseason finale in Miami.
Barth missed his only field-goal attempt, from 43 yards, in Saturday's loss to the Browns.
Those misses left an unsettling feeling for Bucs coach Lovie Smith. He knows the elongated extra points could become a larger factor in games.
"Whether it be an extra point from (33 yards) or 50-plus (field goals), we need somebody to get those points," Smith said. "Last game, you can't miss field goals like that. It really does hurt you."
Brindza, 22, would seem to have a leg up on Barth and Murray. With the Lions, he was perfect on three field goals, connecting from 41, 49 and 51 yards, and made both extra points. Just as important, seven of his eight kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
"To make that offense go 80 yards every time, that's a huge deal for the defense," Brindza said.
In an emergency, Brindza could also punt. He averaged 49.3 yards on four punts this preseason, with three downed inside the 20-yard line. "It's my turn to prove my worth in what they got and run with it," Brindza said.
Barth, 29, is an 85.3 percent field-goal kicker. His career was derailed in 2013, when he tore his Achilles playing in a charity basketball game. He felt pretty good about things after signing a two-year, $2.75 million contract last week. Then Brindza showed up. "If I don't miss a field goal (Saturday), maybe it's a different story," he said.
At least the punting situation is clearing up. Like kickers, punters are NFL nomads who know the unemployment office is just a shank away.
Tuesday, the Bucs released Michael Koenen, who was last in the NFL in 2014 with a 40.4 yard gross average. Tampa Bay's punter for the past four seasons was owed $3.25 million.
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"Michael Koenen has done an awful lot," Smith said. "One of our team captains, has been a good punter for us throughout. We just feel like this is the direction we need to go at this time."
The last of five punters standing for the Bucs since the start of training camp is Jacob Schum, who is on his third stint with the team. At 26, Schum has spent time with the Browns, Jets (twice) and Bucs. Schum averaged 51.3 yards on four punts in Saturday's game.
"It's a crazy business, but there's nothing else I'd rather be doing," Schum said. "I'm glad they brought me back to give me this other chance and I feel like it's a great opportunity to get my career rolling and I hope I can be a part of this team for a really long time."
But he knows that, eventually, they all get the boot.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.