Patriots

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

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.

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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. 

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Patriots ID, turn in beer-throwing fan

Patriots ID, turn in beer-throwing fan

The Patriots have identified the fan who threw a beer at Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill after his 75-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter Sunday night and Foxboro police reportedly will charge the 21-year-old man from Marshfield, Mass., with disorderly conduct.

Here’s the statement from the Patriots:

WBZ reported that the beer-tosser will be charged with disorderly conduct and throwing an object at a sporting event:

Here's a slow-motion look at the incident, via NFL Network’s Marc Istook:

Hill's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said they are talking to the NFL and the NFL Players Association about taking action against the fan, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported:

Hill’s touchdown and the ensuing extra-point tied the score at 40 in a game the Patriots would go on to win 43-40 on Stephen Gostkowski’s last-second field goal, handing the Chiefs their first loss.

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Nice of the officials to stay out the way of Patriots-Chiefs classic

hard-truths-curran-chiefs-refs.jpg
AP Photo

Nice of the officials to stay out the way of Patriots-Chiefs classic

GAME WITHIN THE GAME
There are a few items we highlighted in our "Game Within the Game" preview story that need some circling back this morning and the first one is officiating.

John Hussey’s crew was refreshingly out of the limelight in this one. Whether that’s thanks to the two teams playing really cleanly or the officials easing back a bit (the crew walked off 26 penalties in Week 1 and 20 in Week 5), the upshot was a game that had great flow.

But we told you how much better the Patriots were at playing within the rules than Kansas City and that was borne out. The Patriots didn’t have any accepted penalties last night. The Chiefs had five for 58 yards including a 37-yard defensive pass interference on Josh Gordon that set up a Sony Michel touchdown.

The Patriots are now at the top of the league in accepted penalties against (still 26) while the Chiefs are the second-most penalized teamhttp://www.nflpenalties.com/phase.php?year=2018 . The Chiefs have 50 penalties for 430 yards.

Even more impressive is that the Patriots just have 18 accepted penalties combined on offense and defense. The other eight are against their special teams. The Chiefs have 47 non-special teams penalties against them.

WE TOLD YOU HILL WAS FAST
Second, we hit on Tyreek Hill’s speed and the fact that he can run 22 mph with a football under his arm. He hit the gas a couple of times Sunday night and opened up space between himself and the very fast Devin McCourty.

Hill scored three times. McCourty was in coverage twice. One came on a 1-yard touchdown flip when McCourty had a minor collision with teammate Jonathan Jones allowing Hill to scoot free. The other was on a 14-yard throw where McCourty got caught in a trail position and couldn’t make up the gap Hill created.

“Hill’s a guy who – if you play him outside and he runs all the way to the other pylon – those are plays where you try to run it down and try to make a play late but it’s hard to catch back up to him,” McCourty explained.  “The longer the play goes on, you hope the ball will be in the air long enough to catch up but on that first one I went from inside the left hash to 2 yards inside the right pylon. It’s just tough trying to know which way he’s going initially but I just need to try and stay closer and make a play at the end.”

Hill’s speed led directly to 21 points. The arm strength of Patrick Mahomes was directly attributable to the seven Kansas City got on the 67-yard touchdown pass he threw to Kareem Hunt in the third quarter.

Mahomes got outside the pocket but had few options and bought time by drifting. With that, Jason McCourty slowed his pursuit and curled toward the middle of the field, while Hunt kept going straight down the sideline.

Recalling that play, Devin McCourty said, “The hard thing with (Mahomes) was, if you do get after him and get some pressure, is how well he throws the ball outside the pocket. That’s the hardest time to cover fast guys. You cover the initial route but once he gets outside the pocket and the guy just goes one way or goes the other way, you just have to try to catch him. On the Hunt touchdown, he did what you wanted him to do. (Mahomes) bubbled (rolled right on an arc away from the line of scrimmage) but the guy has a great arm that even if he bubbles, he can still get it deep.”

Bill Belichick was not enthused about that play.

“It's not a mystery,” he said on the Monday morning conference call. “Almost every quarterback we've played has been a scrambling quarterback, so it's not like we haven’t seen one before or it hasn’t come up before. We just had a couple of breakdowns last night. It was more than one play, but there were a couple of breakdowns that just ended up in bad plays which we've got to do a better job. We've got to coach it better and we've got to play it better.”

As for the long Hill touchdown in the fourth quarter, Belichick panned that too.

“I'd just say that was just bad defense, bad coaching, bad playing, bad everything.”

GOSTKOWSKI IN "A GROOVE"
Finally, a very busy game for Stephen Gostkowski who went 9-for-9 on his kicks. He was 5-for-5 on field goals including a very clutch 50-yarder with 3:15 to go that pushed the Patriots lead to seven. If he’d missed, would have put the Chiefs first-and-10 at their own 40 driving for the win and not the tie.

He was right down the middle on virtually every kick as well.

“Sometimes you take a guy like Steve for granted,” Bill Belichick said on the conference call. “Just goes out there and bangs them through.”

“I felt in a groove on field goals tonight,” said Gostkowski. “Games like this where you get a lot of opportunities you feel very involved in the game, to me it makes the job easier. Sometimes the hardest games are when you’re sitting around and you don’t know when you’re going to go out there. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. We have a great offense and we score a lot of points. But when you hit the first one and it goes right where you aimed, it’s easy to get on a roll when stuff like that happens.”
The kicking game wasn’t without its curiosities though.

Late in the first quarter, Gostkowski tried what appeared to be a half-squib that was easily fielded by Kansas City’s Spencer Ware at the 35 and returned nearly to midfield. It didn’t have a prayer of being recovered by the Patriots so why did New England just hand over 20 yards of field position to an explosive offense?

“It was a bad kick,” said Gostkowski. “I’m not gonna get into it. It just wasn’t very well executed and put that one on me.”
As for the high-arcing kickoff that the Chiefs returned 97 yards in the fourth quarter, I asked Gostkowski if he can just kick it through the end zone whenever he wants.

“I wish,” he said.  

Gostkowski’s kickoffs going to the lighthouse end were as follows: 3 yards deep in the end zone, squib fielded at the Kansas City 35, moonshot fielded at the 3, touchback, touchback.

As outstanding as Gostkowski was on field goals, the plan hatched by Belichick and special teams coach Joe Judge for Gostkowski’s kickoffs is harder to discern. 

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