If Gramatica can't cut it, kick him aside
They should have kicked. They should have kicked quickly and, hopefully, straight. They should have kicked without discussion, without debate, without delay. Considering the fumble that was wiped out on the play before, they should have kicked and been grateful for the opportunity. They should have kicked because they were behind by three. They should have kicked because it was the fourth quarter. They should have kicked because they were on the road.

They should have kicked because they had a chance to make things interesting in the NFC South division race. They should have kicked because they had been climbing uphill all afternoon. They should have kicked because, when it came to the hindquarters of their offensive line, the Falcons had been doing the kicking all afternoon. They should have kicked because the defense was playing well at the time. They should have kicked because their offense wasn't. They should have kicked because, well, isn't that what the little guy with the funny hair does?

Tampa Bay lost grip on a lot of things Sunday afternoon. The Bucs lost a game, and lost momentum, and lost their grip on reason. They lost an opportunity, they lost a potential comeback and they lost much of the spark the previous month had returned. Most of all, however, the Bucs lost confidence in Martin Gramatica. Who knows what happens with their kicking game from here?

They should have kicked. Of course they should have. Despite all the Falcons' rushing yards, despite all the missed blocks, despite all the penalties, despite the terrible start, the Bucs found themselves with a chance to pull even with the Falcons with 11 minutes to play. Atlanta led 17-14, but the Bucs had the ball, fourth and a popcorn box, on the Falcons 28. They had just dodged trouble because on third and 1, when Michael Pittman ran into a closed door, the ball came out clearly. However, officials ruled that Pittman's progress had been stopped.

The Bucs field-goal unit ran onto the field, and Gramatica lined up for a 45-yard field goal. But then coach Jon Gruden was waving the kicking team off the field, and he ran his offense back onto the field. Pittman took the ball on a toss sweep, and he was smothered for a 2-yard loss. When that happened, you could hear the air hiss out of the Bucs. Three plays later, the Falcons scored again, and the game was finished.

For the record, Gruden defended the play, loved the play and, if both teams would only return to the field and line up, said he would run it again. Had it not been a magnificent call, you can presume the play would have lost 10 yards. (As long as we're on the subject: If Gruden had been the original decision-maker, and he had it over to do again, would he market New Coke, sail the Titanic along the same route or invite Janet Jackson to do another halftime show? Just asking here.)

Seriously, the decision seemed to be a strange one, because the line spent most of the afternoon showing it had no chance to block the Falcons. The Bucs line allowed seven sacks and was called for eight penalties. Not saying it was a cave-in, but the canary died in pregame warmups. Atlanta coach Jim Mora suggested that by going for the first down, perhaps Gruden was trying to make a statement. If so, the statement seems to be this: Have you seen my kicker lately?

If Gruden has lost some confidence in Gramatica, it should be said, it is hard to blame him. During his first four seasons, Gramatica was the most dependable offensive weapon in the Bucs' employ, and the basic game plan was to play good enough defense so the game was on his toe at the end. Ah, but things have not gone well for Gramatica the past season and a half. He has made 1 of 5 field goals between 40 and 49 yards this season, 4-of-13 over the past two. Last week, remember, he missed a field goal and an extra point.

Still, if a coach lacks confidence in a kicker, the time to do something about it is beforehand. An NFL team - heck, a college team - cannot afford to go into a game without the ability to turn a 45-yard kick into points. Either you trust your kicker, or you find a new one. Simple as that. As for Gramatica, all of this seems to be wreaking havoc on his confidence. He stood at his locker, his eyes wounded, his answers barely audible. The way he moved toward the open door, perhaps he should have taken the toss sweep.

Yes, Gramatica is a fan favorite. But kicking is not a profession for life. The reason kickers move around so often is that their confidence, their rhythm, fades in and out like a radio losing a signal. Gramatica has been searching for his for a long time now. Who knows? Maybe he needs to turn every kick into a dance party again, just to regain his swagger.

They should have kicked. Despite Gramatica's struggles, despite his slump, despite the fact fans love going for it on fourth and 1, it was the right play. Get even, then try to win in the end. Before the game, as he does every week, special teams coach Richard Bisaccia told Gruden that Gramatica's range was 53 yards Sunday. He agreed that Gramatica was healthy enough. He had kicked well before the game, and he had made all four of his kicks from beyond 40 yards in practice.

For the record, Bisaccia said the subject of the coaches' confidence in Gramatica never came up in the conversation before the play. Perhaps not, but it will come up now. It is time for a few kickers to show up around One Buc, just to see what they can do. In a close game, the choice is simple. Either you boot te ball, or you boot the kicker.

Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times 15 November 2004