The would-be game-winner missed by inches. And the identity of the culprit, in the minds of thousands of Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans on Sunday, was clear.
The Bucs lost 32-31 to the New York Giants. Thanks to rookie kicker Matt Gay, they’d left five points – and a win – on the table. Gay missed three kicks, none more agonizing than a 34-yard field goal as time expired that sailed narrowly wide of the upright.
And the fifth-round pick from Utah took the blame. Never mind that he’d made four of his five field goal attempts, one from 52 yards. “I have to make it from all around the field,” he said postgame. “Have to make them [from] short, from long. ... It has to go through.”
Yet there was another culprit, one whose final-minute gaffe was even more unforgivable. One play prior to Gay’s 34-yard miss, with the ball on the 9-yard line and the clock stopped, the Bucs were flagged for delay of game. Why?
“I just took it on purpose,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said postgame. “Yeah, he’s better back, that field goal is easier five yards back.”
And if that sounds ludicrous, well, that’s because it is.
“Makes no sense,” kicking guru Chris Sailer told Yahoo Sports.
Another kicking coach who preferred to remain anonymous went a step further: “Completely asinine.”
Why taking a penalty makes no sense
In the wake of Tampa Bay’s loss, Yahoo Sports reached out to several kicking experts to ask if there was any legitimate rationale for taking the delay of game. The answer, in short, was no.
“From what I have gathered about this situation,” kicking coach Brandon Kornblue told Yahoo Sports, “that is absurd.”
“I'm not sure what the coach is thinking,” said Hugo Castellanos, a California-based coach. “He said he felt the kicker would be better from five yards further. We don't know what kind of communication took place between him and the kicker, but I would certainly not have made that kick more difficult by pushing it back.”
Both Kornblue and Castellanos said that the only situation in which a coach should even consider moving a kick back five yards is if the ball is near the goal line on the hash marks, as opposed to in the middle of the field.
“Some coaches believe that it is a bit easier to avoid a sharp angle,” Kornblue said, if the field goal is from less than 20 yards.
But, he clarifies: “It would never be better to kick farther from down the middle.”
And that’s exactly what Gay was doing. The Bucs had the ball on the 9, right hash, with 13 seconds and one timeout remaining. After Jameis Winston’s spike and the subsequent delay of game, Winston centered the ball. The Bucs then called time with four seconds left to set up a potential game-winner from dead center – but from 34 yards away instead of 29, thanks to the unnecessary penalty.
It was so “absurd” that Kornblue, who has trained multiple NFL specialists, almost thought Arians’ explanation was sarcastic.
Sailer, a former kicker and punter at UCLA, reiterated the others, himself, and common sense: “It makes no sense that you’d want to kick from further out.”
Data doesn’t support the decision
Years worth of NFL data agree with the experts. Since 2010, per Pro Football Reference data, NFL kickers have attempted 228 field goals from 29 yards out and 234 from 34 yards. The league-wide percentage from 29 yards is 94 percent. From five yards back?
It’s 87.3 percent.
Variance accentuates the disparity a bit. But it is indeed a disparity, and does confirm that Arians was flat-out wrong. Broaden the sample size, and the numbers tell a similar story. NFL kickers have hit 94.4 percent of their field goals from 28-30 yards this decade. Move the range back to 33-35, and their accuracy drops to 91.1.
It’s unclear why Arians thought a 34-yarder would be easier than a 29-yarder. Or perhaps he didn’t believe it at all. Perhaps it was an excuse for his own poor clock management. At his day-after news conference on Monday, he seemed to change his story slightly:
#Bucs coach Bruce Arians explains what happened on delay of game penalty before Gay’s missed FG attempt yesterday. A little different than yesterday’s explanation, but seems evident that he didn’t want Gay kicking from right haha no matter the distance. #GoBucs #NYGvsTN pic.twitter.com/TSAfSro2IV— Eduardo A. Encina (@EddieInTheYard) September 23, 2019
Either way, though, he erred.
So did Gay, of course. “He’s gotta make the kick,” Arians said.
“Five yards isn’t going to make a difference, really,” Winston added.
But then a reporter shot back: “Did you see the field goal? Five yards would’ve made a difference.”
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Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg contributed reporting.