SUDBURY – It’s the last Saturday before training camp and on this blue sky/no cloud/light breeze afternoon, Stephen Gostkowski is working a stopwatch at a youth football camp at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.
Paid, not paid, I have no idea (probably paid, though). Still, the second-longest tenured Patriot is giving the organizers their money’s worth in terms of involvement and enthusiasm. I snap a shot of Gostowski timing a pack of tweens leaning for the tape in a 40-yard dash and tweet it out.
A total of two replies come back. The second one asks, “When are they gonna cut his bum ass? Lost them the AFCCG in '15, almost lost them the SB in '16, missed a FG in SB 52.”
It’s Twitter so the “ACKNOWLEDGE MY BLOODTHIRSTY CANDOR!!!” factor enters into our friend’s ruthless panning of the third most accurate kicker in NFL history
But @DrJones37 isn’t on an island either.
Gostkowski is a two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler who’s made 340 of 388 field goals and 593 of 599 PATs in the 11 regular seasons since 2006. He’s missed just 10 of 140 postseason kicks (field goals and PATs) . And plenty of New Englanders sneer at the mention of his name and can’t wait to see his allegedly bum-ass shrinking over the horizon.
Gostkowski’s perceived sin against Patriots football isn’t really the misses DrJones correctly catalogued. It’s the absence of season-saving or Super Bowl clinching kicks that his predecessor Adam Vinatieri made. Even now, a dozen years after he fled for more money and kinder kicking conditions with the Colts, Hall of Fame-bound Automatic Adam throws a shadow Gostkowski can’t escape.
And there’s no way to change that. Vinatieri made the most memorable field goal in NFL history in the Snow Bowl and validated that kick with the OT game-winner a half-hour later. Two weeks after that, he creased a 48-yarder in New Orleans to win Super Bowl 36. Two seasons later, he clinched Super Bowl 39 with another relative bomb against the Panthers.
It doesn’t matter that he was an 82 percent regular-season kicker with the Patriots or that he was 1 for 3 on field goals in SB39 and 26 of 37 overall in the playoffs while here. Vinatieri’s makes were so massive that misses were forgiven and forgotten. With the “money on the table,” as the late Gil Santos would say, you could start packing up your stuff when Vinatieri was kicking.
It’s not supposed to feel like that. But since it once did, clutch-kicking nirvana is seen as a standard. Gostkowski’s never measured up to it.
In contrast to Vinatieri, Gostkowski’s PAT miss at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship is probably his most memorable kick. Even though he hadn’t missed one all season in spite of the NFL’s pushing the kick back 15 yards in 2015 (with the Patriots hearty support), even though he held the NFL record for consecutive PATs made, that miss cost the Patriots dearly against noodle-armed Peyton Manning and – in large part – kept the team from getting a shot at the very vulnerable Panthers in the Super Bowl.
That miss begot a 2016 slump that was capped by an “Oh, shit!” PAT miss in the Super Bowl that was immediately followed by a botched onsides kick.
Those are the “Yeah, but…” trump cards slammed down in front of anyone who wants to argue the merits of Gostkowski.
And with the 34-year-old entering the final year of his current contract, the chance looms that the Good Riddance Gostkowski crew may realize its wish.
And then realize what it really feels like when every kick is closer to a coin flip than a layup.
For the past three seasons, 17 teams made more than 85 percent of their regular-season field goals. My math tells me that those 15 teams – nearly half the league – live in Puckertown.
Nine teams were under 80 percent last year. There were eight in 2016 and just three in 2015. By contrast, Gostkowski’s been south of 90 percent once since 2013 (84.4 percent in 2016).
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Even if Gostkowski hasn’t been as steady as a metronome, he’s a damn sight better at kicking field goals and PATs than 90 percent of the league. Not to mention the fact he’s accustomed to the kickoff nuances the Patriots demand as they consistently try to win field position.
On Saturday, Gostkowski acknowledged the passage of time since he was a rookie in 2006.
“It’s a good and a bad thing,” he said. “I have some white hairs in my beard now. Getting a little thin up top. It’s a blessing to think that I would have played professional sports for over a decade and going into my 13th year. I’ve got nothing but gratitude and thankfulness.”
Asked by ESPN’s Mike Reiss if he’s in a year-to-year mode at this point, Gostkowski answered, “I really don’t think like that. You reassess things every year. It’s easy to say after a year, ‘I might do this or I might do that…’ but as long as I’m happy, healthy and good I’m gonna do it.”
The Patriots report on Wednesday and camp opens for real on Thursday. This is his 12th camp – two more than Vinatieri was here for.
“It’s like the first day of school. Even though we’ll see how I feel three weeks from now. But I really do look forward to it,” Gostkowski said. “Sometimes having a little too much free time can be dangerous. When you play football you’re used to someone telling you what to do and where to be and you kind of miss that.”
It takes some perspective to appreciate that you’ve got it good even when it’s not always perfect.