Bucs rookie Murray proving he belongs

All Patrick Murray wanted was a fair fight. After a standout career as a kicker and punter at Fordham University in the Bronx, Murray signed a contract with the Buccaneers on Jan. 6, four days into the Lovie Smith regime.

Connor Barth, the most accurate kicker in franchise history, was returning from a ruptured Achilles that wiped out his 2013 season. Murray had the look of a 5-foot-7 training camp grunt, brought on to keep Barth’s right leg from barking during the dog days of August.

Murray, however, had other ideas.

“When he first got here, I knew nothing about him,” said Smith. “All I kept hearing from within the building was there’s this guy Patrick Murray who might have a chance. I was told that when all was said and done, I might like this guy.”

What’s not to like?

Murray has emerged as one of Tampa Bay’s few bright spots during a 1-6 start, converting on all three of his field goal attempts from 50 yards or beyond, including a 55-yarder at New Orleans and a 54-yard try last week at home against Minnesota.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to have done it at the pro level,” Murray said, “but at the same time, my main focus is the won-loss column. I can’t tell you I’m 100 percent happy with the way I performed, because this is a team game and we have to win. We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder right now and a long memory.”

Murray hasn’t been perfect since beating out Barth at the end of camp. He had a 24-yard attempt blocked against St. Louis in Week 2 and he hit the right upright from 45 yards out against Baltimore.

But Smith is hardly complaining about his 23-year-old kicker, who learned his craft under the stern tutelage of his father, Aidan, who played Gaelic football in Northern Ireland.

The first thing you notice about Murray on the football field is the power of his kicking leg. Off the field, his confidence jumps out.

“No offense to the media, but I don’t pay attention to what you guys write,” he said of conjecture that he was mere training camp fodder. “My goal was to come in here and win the job. And now I’m going to treat every day like it’s my first day. I’m not taking anything for granted, but I’m going to enjoy this experience and help this team win some Super Bowls.”

While Smith was observing Murray this summer, Murray was also checking out Tampa Bay’s head coach, who spent nine years on the Chicago sideline.

“Patrick told me that he talked to (Bears kicker) Robbie Gould and Robbie told him if you’re the best kicker, you’ll win the job,” Smith said. “I told him yes, that’s true. He felt he was the best guy, and he wanted to know if I was really going to let him be the Bucs kicker. I said absolutely. Connor was a good kicker, and by the end of camp, he was kicking well, but Patrick has performed the way we thought he would.”

When Murray approached the season opener against Carolina, he didn’t know what to expect.

“There have been some definite adjustments I’ve had to make at the pro level,” he said. “I’m not kicking every single day, knowing I have to take care of my legs for a 16-game schedule. There are also media obligations that weren’t a factor at Fordham. But everyone in this locker room helped me transition to the NFL. Every day has gotten easier, and every day, I grow closer to my teammates.”

NFL kickers are known to be a different breed, but Smith describes Murray as “an athlete, one of the guys.”

Those weekly chats with Aidan have a way of keeping Murray grounded.

“My dad’s the main reason I’m here — he taught me all the fundamentals of kicking,” Murray said. “He’s living in New Jersey, and he watches every game. He’s seen me play three times in person so far, and he always tries to put a positive spin on things. His message, first of all, is that he’s proud of me. Then, we talk about what went right and what went wrong ... that’s what a father is supposed to do.”

While Barth remains out of the NFL, Murray is enjoying life on the pro level, where those weekly paychecks go a long way and the manicured playing fields don’t hurt, either.

“Every field I’ve played on has been great,” Murray said as the Bucs prepare for Sunday’s matchup at Cleveland, where the gameday forecast calls for a high of 45 degrees.

“I’m from Jersey,” Murray said. “I’ve played in the cold all my life. I played in a blizzard at Army during my junior year with Fordham and averaged about 50 yards a punt, so I’m not too concerned with a little cold.’’

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Neil S. Schwartz

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Jonathan Feinsod

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