Jake Levin

An Ode to Stephen Gostkowksi

You can count on one hand the number of times a Gostkowski flub played a significant role in a New England loss

Mark Brown/Getty Images, File

When Tom Brady connected with Deion Branch from 13 yards out with 0:24 left in regulation, it masked just how dominant the Jets were in a 28-21 win over the Patriots in the 2010 AFC Divisional playoffs.

Why bring this game up now? Because Shayne Graham kicked the PAT after Branch's score, the final point produced by the Patriots that season. It was also the last time someone other than Stephen Gostkowski attempted a kick for New England, as well as the most recent season in which the Patriots failed to advance to at least the AFC Championship Game.

That's not a knock on Graham nor a credit to Gostkowski, but it demonstrates just how much the 35-year-old Gostkowski has gone underappreciated throughout his tenure.

Gostkowski is out for the season due to a left hip injury which will require surgery, marking just the second time in his 14-year career he's had to miss game action. Stability at various positions in Foxboro has been well-documented, and kicker is no exception.

Gostkowski entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, replacing the consensus greatest kicker of all-time, Adam Vinatieri, in the process.

In the meantime, Gostkowski has become the fourth-most accurate kicker in league history at 87.3% — 12 spots ahead of Vinatieri on the list — and the leading scorer in franchise history, leapfrogging Vinatieri for the top spot.

Devin McCourty referred to Gostkowski as an "all-time great" in his press conference on Wednesday. You don't have to believe Bill Belichick when he's pumping the tires of an opponent like Washington or the Dolphins, but you take note when he mentions someone as being among the greatest ever.

"Steve Gostkowski's one of the greatest kickers of all-time," Belichick said Friday. "He's been great for this franchise."

"I think because of Slate [Matthew Slater] always being the special teams captain, I think maybe sometimes the outside world doesn't know how much [Gostkowski] means to our special teams unit and to us as a team," McCourty said. "I think for me, just the stability of that position — we never waver if there's a kick on the line, kickoffs, playing against tough returners. Sometimes the best thing to stop a tough returner is Steve kicking a ball out of the end zone."

You can count on one hand the number of times a Gostkowski flub played a significant role in a New England loss. The two that stick out are a missed 42-yard field goal with 0:05 left against the Cardinals at home in 2012, a 20-18 loss, as well as the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver, when Gostkowski missed a first quarter extra point in another 20-18 loss.

Sure, Gostkowski should have made both kicks, but why exactly were the Patriots in need of a miracle against Kevin Kolb at Gillette Stadium? It's not Gostkowski's fault that Broncos tight end Owen Daniels, playing in the penultimate game of his NFL career, torched New England's defense for two touchdowns on a frustrating day in January.

Gostkowski's misses in Super Bowls LI-LIII get swept under the rug because of a variety of circumstances, but he had redemptive moments in the games as well, particularly last February vs. the Rams. His 41-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining gave New England a cushion that stood up when his counterpart, Greg Zuerlein, missed a 48-yarder moments later.

Super Bowl LIII is the only championship game (thus far) that the Patriots have been involved in under Belichick that ended as a two-score game.

Gostkowski may not have the signature postseason moments that Vinatieri had in New England, but there's quite a few high-pressure kicks in the regular season that jump out. Who could forget his 54-yard strike with 0:01 on the clock against the Giants in 2015 to give the Patriots a 27-26 win on the road? McCourty listed more, including an overtime winner in 2010 vs. the Ravens, as well as a 62-yard kick in Mexico City vs. the Raiders in 2017.

"They always say you don't know how much you need a kicker until you get in those situations and you don't have a guy that you know is going to come and deliver," McCourty said. "I think at times for players, we get spoiled sometimes when you have a guy like that, that's kicked for so long and has been so good."

The Patriots are set to venture back into the unknown in the kicking department on Sunday, when 37-year-old Mike Nugent — drafted the year before Gostkowski — will make his debut for the team. Over 15 seasons with seven different teams, Nugent is the 43rd-most accurate kicker in league history at 81.4%.

"Mike's got a lot of experience," Belichick said. "We felt like he was the best option."

He lacks the range Gostkowski possesses, only 13 for 30 on field goal attempts of beyond 50 yards in his career (43%; Gostkowski, in contrast, is 25 for 35, or 71%).

Gostkowski is the second-leading scorer in postseason history, trailing only Vinatieri in points, 238-205. Nugent has only 26 points in his playoff career, mostly the result of playing on mediocre teams that never advanced beyond wild-card weekend.

Neither Nugent nor Younghoe Koo, who was signed to the Patriots' practice squad, will face many challenging kicks over the next few weeks as New England's extended preseason rolls along. Inevitably, though, there's going to be a moment closer to the end of the regular season or in January or February when a drive stalls out and the fate of a seventh Lombardi Trophy may rest on the right foot of Nugent or Koo.

Gostkowski is under contract for 2020, so it's not likely we've seen the last of him in a Patriots uniform. On the off chance that it is, don't remember his struggles to open up the 2019 regular season. Remember Gostkowski as a more-than-capable replacement for Vinatieri. Think of him as a guitarist who may not have any No. 1 hits on his résumé, but one who joins the band later on and doesn't mess with the chemistry and, technically, just might sound a little better.

Changing quarterbacks and coaches at some point is going to be jarring for New Englanders. By the same token, you might not realize just how good a thing you had with Gostkowski until he's gone.

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