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Jones: Dirk Koetter was right to turn game over to his struggling kicker

Bucs kicker Nick Folk (2) offers a thumbs up to fans after the Bucs' win over the Giants. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Bucs kicker Nick Folk (2) offers a thumbs up to fans after the Bucs' win over the Giants. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Oct. 2, 2017

TAMPA — What in the world was Dirk Koetter thinking?

Game on the line. His Bucs down by a point. And he's going to turn the game over to his kicker?

His kicker???

Did he not watch the first 59 minutes and 56 seconds of Sunday's game? Did he not pay attention to the past two seasons? Is he crazy?

If there's a football coach on the planet who shouldn't trust a kicker, it's Koetter. No one has seen more ups and downs with his kickers than Koetter has in his brief tenure as a head coach.

"More down,'' Koetter said.

The man who lived through the nightmare otherwise known as Robert Aguayo then had to watch the supposed solution to his problems miss three kicks Sunday — two makeable field goals and an extra point. In fact, if Nick Folk, the 32-year-old veteran brought in to replace Aguayo, did his job properly Sunday, the Bucs would've waltzed to an easy victory.

Instead, Koetter and Bucs Nation had to hold their collective breath Sunday as Folk lined up for a 34-yarder with four seconds left. And that's because Koetter played for a field goal to win it.

"Again, we've talked about this before, they got to make it,'' Koetter said. "That's what they get paid to do. Nick has made a lot of kicks. Shoot, it was right there. He was going to make that kick, there was no doubt in my mind.''

There was doubt in everyone else's. Even Giants guard Justin Pugh said, "I was feeling pretty confident that if he had a long field goal, he wouldn't make it.''

Heck, wasn't everyone thinking that? Yet, Folk calmly made it, capping a 25-23 Bucs victory.

"This is probably about the worst you can feel after a game winner,'' Folk said. "It was fun in the end. I don't know about the middle part, but it was fun in the end.''

The middle part was the only reason for the nail-biting end. Folk missed field goals of 46 and 49 yards, as well as an extra point.

"It was a rough day at the office,'' Folk said.

So rough that when the Bucs got the ball at their own 25 with 3:16 left and down by a point, you figured they needed a touchdown to win. And after quarterback Jameis Winston connected on a 26-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate, a touchdown seemed possible. Tampa Bay had a first and 10 at the Giants 13.

But it was then that Koetter ordered Winston to kneel down twice to set up the field goal.

"You play the percentages,'' Koetter said. "You use up the clock, make them use their timeouts, center the ball, four seconds left, timeout, kick it, win the game.''

Yeah, you win if the guy makes it.

"Nick's a pro kicker,'' Koetter said. "He's going to make that kick every time.''

Folk said he wasn't surprised at all to have the game put on his shoulders. And right foot.

"I don't think there was any question (about going for the field goal),'' Folk said. "I think at that time of the game, it was the smart play.''

Now, a cynic might suggest that even after Folk missed three kicks, Koetter trusted his shaky kicker to not miss a field goal more than he trusted his quarterback to not turn the ball over. Then again, Koetter didn't even try running the football. He simply turned the game over to his kicker.

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And that's the right call. A NFL coach must trust his kicker to make a 34-yarder, for crying out loud.

What made it so dicey was Folk, for the second time in 157 NFL regular- and post-season games, had missed three kicks.

"Business as usual,'' Folk shrugged when asked what he was thinking when he lined up for the winner. "I've made a bunch of kicks in my career and I've missed a bunch as well. … You just have to have confidence in the next kick. I try to pride myself on that. I try to pride myself on being confident kick after kick, whether you make or miss the previous one.''

Man, it's a heck of way to make a living, eh?

"I have a lot of fun doing what I do,'' Folk said. "For the most part, pretty much enjoy it except for (Sunday). I mean I enjoyed it, but in the end, it's probably the worst I've felt after making a game winner in my career.''

But he should feel good, and especially confident going forward after the confidence Koetter showed in him after what had been a lousy day.

So what was Koetter thinking? That Nick Folk would win the game.

He was right.

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