Alive & Kickin'
Matt Bryant can hardly remember a month worse than the one he's just been through. There might have been one during that four-year stretch he spent working in a pawn shop just after college, but nothing compared to this. It was a month littered with negatives, one in which his inability to make good on three field goal tries in two games was made laughable by the fact his first son was born prematurely 24 days ago. "I've needed some positives to happen to me," said Bryant, whose life started to take a turn for the better Tuesday when his son, Tre, finally came home from the hospital.
The turn continued Sunday. With a game - and maybe even a season - on the line, the Bucs' beleaguered kicker capped off a slump-breaking outing by booting a 62-yard field goal to give the Bucs a stunning 23-21 victory against the Eagles.
"It's been a weird season for me so far," said Bryant, who kept the Bucs alive earlier in the game by kicking 30- and 44-yard field goals. "It's just been very frustrating, really. I mean, you know you're a better kicker than what the stats are showing. But they say you're only as good as your last kick so if the season were to end today, it would be a great night."
Great or not, the night followed a legendary day for Bryant. His game-winner went into the record books as the longest kick in Bucs history and the second longest in NFL history.
Only the Broncos' Jason Elam and Saints club-footed kicker Tom Dempsey have kicked longer field goals, with both hitting 63-yarders. Of those kicks, only Dempsey's was a game-winner.
Bryant was born five years after Dempsey made his kick, so he didn't see that one live. After Sunday's game, Bryant revealed that he didn't see his record-breaking game-winner live, either. He kicked the ball so far out of sight, he said, that he lost track of the ball long before it split and cleared the uprights with a couple yards to spare. In fact, for a second or two, Bryant thought he'd missed it.
"As soon as I hit it I said, 'Well, maybe,'" Bryant said. "I didn't hit it as good as I thought I could have hit it. I saw it probably going three-quarters of the way and then I lost sight of it. But then somebody jumped on me and I heard the cannons go off and I said to myself, 'Well, I guess I made it.' After that a lot of guys came up and hit me on the head and patted me on the back."
Derrick Brooks was one of them. Moments before Bryant took the field, Brooks walked off of it, having failed miserably in an attempt to keep Eagles running back Brian Westbrook from turning a Donovan McNabb pass into a lead-robbing 52-yard touchdown.
Brooks had his arms wrapped around Westbrook not far from the line of scrimmage, but somehow Westbrook escaped his grasp. Westbrook then escaped the grasp of at least four other Bucs tacklers before reaching the end zone.
That didn't matter to Brooks. He'd blown the best chance anyone had to stop Westbrook, so as he took a knee on the sideline, he literally prayed for redemption. A few plays later, when Bryant launched his kick, Brooks' prayer was answered. "It's like some things are just meant to happen," Brooks said. "My missed tackle became a chance for Matt to go out and make that kick and he made it. He came through."
It wasn't just Brooks whom Bryant bailed out. He bailed out an entire defensive unit that was struggling long before Westbrook caught that dump-off from McNabb and muscled his way past Brooks.
Despite turning the ball over four times, including twice on interceptions that Ronde Barber returned for touchdowns, the Eagles racked up 506 yards of offense, including 208 yards rushing.
Westbrook had the bulk of those yards. He gained 101 as a rusher and 113 as a pass catcher to finish with more yards (214) than the entire Bucs offense, which gained 196.
McNabb completed 22 of 35 passes for 302 yards, but Brooks said it was the Eagles' running attack that did the Bucs in. "We got so coverage conscious that we let ourselves give up the big plays [in the running game]," Brooks said. "I mean, McNabb was tremendous. When we took away the big plays, he just went and used his legs."
McNabb's counterpart didn't use his legs anywhere near as well as McNabb did. When he needed to, though, Bucs rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski got the yards he needed to put the Bucs into position to win. He plowed his way for a yard on fourth down to help set up Bryant's first field goal in the third quarter and completed a third-and-7 pass to Ike Hilliard to set up Bryant's second field goal in the fourth.
Then, with the Eagles leading 21-20 and Brooks on the sideline praying for a miracle, Gradkowski scrambled for 9 yards on a first-and-10 play to set the stage for Bryant, whom Bucs coach Jon Gruden had plenty of confidence in. "I saw him kick that ball off prior to the Eagles' last scoring drive and he just bombed it out of the end zone," Gruden said of Bryant. "And I'd seen him kick two 54-yarders in practice this week. I just had a feeling that if he got the ball up, if we could protect where he could really get the ball up, we could make it. What can I say, it was a great, great outcome today. That was one of the most dramatic finishes to a football game any of us will ever see."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 23 October 2006