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'Tampa Curse'? Bucs' notorious kicking woes more complicated than that

TAMPA, Fla. -- From the time general manager Jason Licht boldly traded into the second round of the 2016 NFL draft for Roberto Aguayo to Aguayo's well-documented struggles to the subsequent struggles of replacement Nick Folk, no team has drawn more attention or scrutiny for its kicking woes than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Folk missed three field goals in the Bucs' 19-14 loss to the New England Patriots on Oct. 5. He nearly cost the Bucs their 25-23 win over the New York Giants on Oct. 1, missing two field tries and an extra point. Before Folk, Aguayo made just 22 of 31 field goals (71 percent) in 2016, the lowest percentage of any kicker in the NFL and one of the worst performances by a kicker in the past five years. Aguayo almost cost Tampa Bay two victories over the Carolina Panthers and contributed to a 37-32 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Simply put, the Bucs have been the worst in the NFL at converting field goals since the start of last season, making just 66.7 percent. And the struggles aren't new: They have connected on just 74.1 percent of their kicks over the past five seasons, also last in the league. In fact, the Bucs' kicking issues go back much further than that. Since 2001, the Bucs have had the league's worst regular-season field goal percentage at 77.5 percent. They also have the worst home field goal percentage at 76.1 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So what or who is to blame for these issues? Is there some kicking curse that has Tampa Bay doomed forever? Is it Matt Bryant's revenge from when the Bucs didn't re-sign him back in 2009? Connor Barth, who had two stints with the Bucs, mentioned a "Tampa Curse" when Aguayo followed him to the Chicago Bears, although Barth was referring more to his own misfortune, even if he has plenty of company with his misery. But the Bucs know it's not that easy to assign blame or they would have fixed it by now. There are many factors that have played into their notorious kicking woes.

'A run of bad luck'

"I think there's a run of bad luck that has nothing to do with the team or the decisions they've made," said Tampa native Jay Feely, a former Pro Bowl kicker who spent 14 seasons in the NFL and who is now an analyst for CBS Sports Network. "There's all these things that have happened."

It all started in 2013. Barth ruptured his Achilles tendon playing in a charity basketball game that July and missed the entire season. His replacement, Tynes, contracted an MRSA infection that ended not only his season, but his career; an MRSA infection also cost Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks of the Bucs his career. In 2015, Bucs kicker Patrick Murray, who succeeded Folk this week, tore his ACL and landed on injured reserve.

"Truthfully, I don't believe in curses. I really don't," Murray said.

He's not superstitious, either: "I fight fear with faith."

Tampa Bay punter Bryan Anger offered his take.

"[It's all] freak accidents and weird stuff. Unfortunately, it got stacked up back-to-back-to-back, so it's been more glorified," Anger said. "It just happens. Look what happened to the New York Giants last week. They lost four starting receivers. When does that ever happen where you lose four of your top guys? It's crazy."

High expectations

Many around the league feel that because the Bucs drafted Aguayo so high, they created enormous expectations for the Florida State product. Unlike other kickers who quietly settle into their roles and are rarely approached by the media until they nail a winning kick, Aguayo was in the spotlight from Day 1.

"I've said all along that they put him in a really bad situation because they moved up to draft him and they gave up draft capital," Feely said. "And then they had to justify the pick and they said, 'He's the greatest kicker in the history of college football.' So [they] raised this expectation level to this height that he couldn't really live up to. And as soon as he missed a kick or two, everyone was gonna come down on them for the pick. So they set him up for failure in that regard."

Minnesota Vikings kicker Kai Forbath gave his assessment.

"I think he felt like he had to make every single kick," Forbath said. "He was a great college kicker, and there are so many guys that can kick at this level just as far. It’s the pressure of being able to do it in games is what kind of separates guys. I don’t know exactly what happened with him. I didn’t watch every kick, but I know that probably had something to do with it."

New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead felt for Aguayo during his struggles.

"Being a second-round draft pick as a punter or kicker, the expectations are so ridiculous coming with that, it’s tough," Morstead said. "Especially being a young guy. Even looking at most guys that get in and stick around, they struggle to succeed at first. They have these obstacles that happen, and it’s for everybody. And it’s just how you’re able to work through it. I think one of the tough things for Roberto is he generally never struggled.

"It's a tough thing to overcome, because once something becomes a thing like that, the spotlight’s always on them. It takes a lot longer to kind of get rid of that in everybody else’s mind. ... So I’m pulling for him if he gets another opportunity to do well. But it’s a little bit of humble pie, I think, going through that. And it’s tough.”

Aguayo himself admitted that the expectations were a lot to deal with. It led to him overthinking. Every time he took the field, he felt he had to live up to his billing.

"I was just trying to overdo things," Aguayo said. "Obviously, you try to get better and better and be a perfectionist at every little detail, but at the end of the day, you get too cluttered in your head."

Folk, an 11-year veteran who has played for three teams, didn't fare much better than Aguayo after beating him out for the job in training camp. He made 6 of 11 field goals (an NFL-worst 54.5 percent for kickers with at least nine attempts) and missed two extra points in four games. That prompted the Bucs to look for yet another kicker, and they settled on a familiar face in Murray.

As the next guy up, how does Murray handle coming into a situation where there already is so much attention on the kicking game?

"Truthfully, if you can't handle the spotlight, it's probably the wrong profession to be in," the 26-year-old said. "I'm sure Jameis [Winston] gets scrutinized, as well. I'm sure Gerald [McCoy] and Lavonte [David] get scrutinized, as well. There's pressure in every position, but it's how you deal with it."

Offensive struggles

When an offense fails to put points on the board, it has to rely more on the kicking game. That can create even more pressure for kickers. The numbers even suggest that it affects accuracy. For example, from 2013 to 2017, the Bucs are 29th in the league in scoring and 32nd in field goal percentage (74.2 percent). The Browns' offense has ranked 32nd, and Cleveland is 29th in field goal percentage (79.5 percent). The Miami Dolphins' offense is ranked 25th and 30th in field goals (78.8 percent). The Rams have produced the 31st-ranked offense and their kicking game is 24th (82.7 percent).

There are some outliers, though, like the Saints, who have had the second-most productive offense during that span and the second-worst kicking average (78 percent). It might be natural to assume here that the teams with accuracy issues were kicking the ball more and that accuracy suffered as a result. But that's not the case, either. None of those teams kicked more than the league average of 134.4 field goal attempts in that span. And though the Bucs had the most attempts in this group, they were just 15th in the NFL in that department.

"Anytime where you're in a situation where you know you're gonna be in tight games all the time, that adds to the pressure of each kick," Feely said. "You know that points are gonna be at a premium, so that kick and those points are gonna matter, as opposed to an offense that is scoring a ton of points and you have some room. But at the end of the day, every kicker is judged on every kick, regardless of the offense."

This was something Aguayo even admitted to. In his three seasons at Florida State, the Noles averaged more than 39 points per game and allowed a little over 18, the fourth-largest point differential in college football. In 2016, the Bucs actually had a minus-15 point differential, despite a 9-7 record.

More pressure at home

In the past five years, the Bucs have the NFL's largest negative field-goal differentials (15.6 percent) between the home team and visitors. Bucs kickers have made 69.8 percent at home from 2013 to 2017; opponents have hit 85.4 percent. The only two teams with bigger such differentials overall -- both positive and negative -- are the Saints and the Patriots; but those squads, naturally, fare better at home, not worse.

The only other team in the NFL with a comparable differential where the hosts have fared worse (71.4 percent) than the visitors (86.6 percent) would be the Browns, whose differential is 15.2 percent. Bucs kickers also have performed better on the road (77.8 percent, an 8 percent differential).

"... You feel like you have more pressure as a kicker at home, because your fans are there watching you and you're close to the sideline warming up and you don't want to have your fans booing you, telling you things on the sidelines."

Former NFL kicker Mike Hollis

Former Pro Bowl kicker Mike Hollis, who spent nine seasons in the NFL and who now runs the ProForm Kicking Academy, has a theory for that.

"I actually played better at away games for whatever reason," Hollis said. "I don't know if it was a mental thing -- you feel like you have more pressure as a kicker at home, because your fans are there watching you and you're close to the sideline warming up and you don't want to have your fans booing you, telling you things on the sidelines. I think there's some sort of built-in, automatic pressure from kicking at home.

"With away games, you don't really have any expectations, you kind of just wing it in a way -- that's what my philosophy was."

Wacky weather

Each stadium has its own unique weather patterns, and Bucs fans can attest to some strange ones, with the multiple weather delays over the past couple of years. Folk even mentioned that he was still adjusting to them.

"It's kind of like Miami in that way," Feely said. "In September games, you know you can get rain and you can get wind from a lot of those storms that are in either the Atlantic or the Gulf. But then the rest of the year, it's a great place to kick. When you look October through December, you're begging for those games when you look at your schedule. ... When you look at those northern cities, you're hoping you don't have games in late November and early December."

Forbath, who was with the Bucs during the 2012 preseason, also chimed in on Tampa's weather.

"It’s windy, but there are other places that are windy and guys are successful. ... There [are] condition issues, but it’s warm, so the ball flies. I don’t know, they say there’s some curse with kickers there, but I think that’s not necessarily true."

Hollis encountered his own share of wind when he was with the Jaguars in Jacksonville. The key for him was to understand the weather trends for each specific stadium and then focus on what he could control.

"Say you're kicking a 50-yard field goal. At the 40-yard line, the wind might be in your face, but 20, 30 yards down the field, it might not," Hollis said. "You can't focus on that. You can only focus on making a solid kick, and it should break right through the wind. The wind should not have any effect on it. If you're second-guessing yourself and kicking carefully, that kick might not be so solid and the wind will take over and control it."

ESPN''s Courtney Cronin and Mike Triplett contributed to this report.