Roberto Aguayo, the most accurate kicker in college football history, for whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up to draft in the second round, is struggling in preseason and in practice. This is a real and interesting news story. It’s also one that I’ve felt unusual compunctions reading (and writing) about.
Aguayo missed his first extra point in his first preseason game, then missed two field goals, of 32 and 49 yards, in his second. He reached out to a former kicker and a mental coach. This was already A Thing before Tuesday’s practice.
Tuesday, during a joint practice with the Browns, he missed three kicks, one so badly a national website posted a story on Aguayo with the classic cartoon of Charlie Brown flying in midair, with Lucy pulling the ball away at the last second.
That certainly was the reaction among some fans who packed One Buc Place for the practices open only to season-ticket holders. Aguayo’s worst miss prompted head-shaking, groans and some boos.
Boos! In practice! Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter conceded that Aguayo is “struggling,” but deferred to his GM on the question of whether Tampa will bring in another kicker in preseason.
None of this matters until the games count, but it’s high time to mention the thing that coverage has been dancing around, for fear of invoking it by naming it: The yips. Steve Blass Disease. Pretty much an athlete’s worst nightmare. There’s not a ton of evidence to believe Aguayo has it, or will—but this is what it would look like.
Again, for all the guilt anyone might feel by bringing this up (I genuinely feel a little), it’s news. The Bucs were perceived to have drafted Aguayo earlier than necessary, violating one of the NFL’s accepted tenets by reaching for a kicker. His performance is a referendum on Tampa’s front office, if nothing else. But the hype comes with a microscope he didn’t ask for—if this were a highly drafted quarterback sailing throws, that’d be news too, and no one would think twice about covering it.
Kicking is different than throwing passes or making blocks, though. It’s isolated, repetitive, and solitary like no other action in football. It’s muscle memory, and it’s mental, and it comes with plenty of lead-up time to second-guess oneself. It’s one of two NFL positions susceptible to the yips, and it’s the only one where each performance has an obvious pass/fail state.
It’s also self-perpetuating. You miss a kick and you think about it; if you think about it, you may miss the kick. But this feedback loop isn’t closed. Media coverage makes a kicker think about it; media coverage informs some fans’ boos and puts pressure on the front office and coaching staff. Writing about a player’s mental state can actively reinforce it.
And no one wants that! Literally no one out here is rooting against a rookie kicker, or wants to contribute to his struggles. But it’s the preseason, nothing else is going on, and this is a valid story with potentially real and lasting ramifications for the Buccaneers, and, especially, for Aguayo.
What’s the point of this post, if the thesis statement is as banal as “The press should keep covering a news story like a news story?” Maybe just working out my own issues. The yips aren’t unique to sports. We all (some of us more than others) live with a constant, low-level background fear that one morning we’ll wake up and stop being good at the thing we’re good at. There’s an empathetic component here that simply doesn’t exist in most sports coverage, and that is a valid meta-story in and of itself. So yes, I’ve felt a little sick reading about Aguayo’s struggles, and now even worse for having written about them, because this is the rare instance where the observer effect is significant. I hope he’s okay. I hope we’re all okay.