CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The Buccaneers’ brass didn’t want to cause a scene on the second row of the Bank of America Stadium press box, so they muted their celebration as much as they could.
There were backslaps and fist pounds and hugs, and no one could have been happier than Tampa Bay general manage Jason Licht when rookie kicker—and second-round draft pick—Roberto Aguayo’s 38-yard field goal went through the uprights to beat the Panthers 17–14 on Monday Night Football.
Aguayo was one of college football’s greatest kickers at Florida State, and Licht decided in the spring that, after the first round, he could wait no longer to pull the trigger. The Bucs traded their third- and fourth-round draft picks so that they were able to take Aguayo at No. 59. overall. It hasn’t been much fun since.
Aguayo missed two field goals and an extra point in the preseason. Through four games this year he had missed two field goals out of three and an extra point. Monday night he added two more missed field goals to that total in one of the ugliest and closest primetime games of the 2016 season.
But Aguayo never chose to be selected when he was, in the way that he was. If he were picked on the third day of the draft, like most good specialists, his woes wouldn’t be so magnified.
“Definitely in the NFL you get a lot of criticism, which I found out early,” Aguayo said at his locker after the Monday night win. “I’ve learned to let that go in one ear and out the other. You’ve just got to laugh at it. I know what to do and I’ve done it at Florida State. It is a rough start coming in but I know what I’m capable of.”
It’s possible—and likely probable—that taking Aguayo so high was always going to be a bad pick. If you value a kicker in the second round, he damn well better be a Hall of Famer. Instead, for a few days during training camp, the biggest news out of Bucs camp was that Aguayo didn’t miss a kick that day.
In defending the pick, Licht said after the draft that the importance of special teams is paramount to the team’s success. Aguayo never missed a field goal inside 40 yards and was 69-of-78 in his career with the Seminoles.
“When you get a chance to get the best kicker in the history of college football, I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to take him,” Licht said in the spring, before mentioning Adam Vinatieri (who, for reference, went undrafted) and Stephen Gostkowski (who was a fourth-round pick) in later breaths. “I have a lot of confidence in him; I like the way he’s wired.”
Several of his teammates spoke Monday night of that wiring, but Aguayo acknowledges the start of his career has been trying. What helped Aguayo get through the rough preseason was having a fellow specialist who could empathize with his situation. Bucs punter and holder Bryan Anger was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by the Jaguars, five picks ahead of Russell Wilson. Despite his 47-yard punting average, the pressure and criticism grew around Anger in his four years with the Jaguars. Seattle had the youngest quarterback to ever go to two Super Bowls, and long-suffering Jacksonville had a punter.
“I told him when he got here, as long as we’re doing our job, it’s all false pressure that’s out there,” Anger said on Monday night. “If we do our job, then we can’t do anything else. Kick the ball and kick it well. When you start letting that outside pressure get on you, you fold.
“We had a talk earlier when he came in to just stay focused and ignore all the noise. You can easily be a savior or you could be on the very low end of things in the league.”
Monday night, Aguayo dipped even lower on that end. He made his first 35-yard kick and then had his 33-yarder doink off the right upright in the second quarter. Aguayo came back to make a 35-yarder on the next series, and then had the potential game-winning 46-yard field goal sail wide left with 3:38 left in the game. Jon Gruden, known for his regular hyperbole, posited during the ESPN broadcast that Aguayo was kicking for his career.
“I am happy that he made (the final kick) and that is awesome that he made it, but we can’t miss those field goals,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said after his team moved to 2–3. “What do you want me to say? We can’t miss those. That could have lost us the game.”
The misses probably should have cost the Bucs the game. But the Panthers, who are now 1–4, had a missed field goal of their own, plus a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone and a run-run-run-punt series that gave the ball back to Tampa Bay with 1:49 remaining in the game.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, a teammate of Aguayo’s going back to college, had words of encouragement for the kicker after the second miss.
“I just told him big-time players make big-time plays in big-time moments,” Winston said. “I said I’m going to get you that ball down there, if I don’t do it myself. So be ready.”
Winston took the offense from its own 14 to Carolina’s 20-yard line to set up the game winner. Winston didn’t watch the kick, and he didn’t even have to say ‘I told you so’ to Aguayo.
“Because he told me ‘I told you so,’” Winston said. “He told me that he was going to make it.”