It's always difficult to follow a legend in any sport and most of the time it is rare that the person following the legend is as good as his predecessor. Think about the coach who followed Vince Lombardi and one is unlikely to know the name. Same is true for Bill Parcells with the New York Giants. Ditto for the quarterback who followed Terry Bradshaw. It is rare to have one legend follow another like when Steve Young followed Joe Montana. For the Patriots, it has been one legend following another at kicker with Adam Vinatieri followed by Stephen Gostkowski. In 2005, the Patriots had two really good kickers on the roster. Adam Vinatieri was an established all-star and the Patriots brought rookie Robbie Gould to training camp. Gould had a fantastic training camp and the Pats had no choice but to cut him because Vinatieri was on the roster. Gould, still in the league, eventually signed with the Chicago Bears and has had a long and successful career. Adam Vinatieri departed for free agency in the 2006 offseason and the Pats were left without a kicker. In the fourth round of the 2006 draft, the Pats selected Stephen Gostkowski and Belichick has had a reliable kicker ever since. Belichick paid his veteran kicker a high compliment Thursday when he said Gostkowski who enters his 13th season and has been with the Pats longer than Vinatieri was with the Pats, (Vinatieri was with the Pats for 10 years from 1996-2005), was one of the all-time best kickers in NFL history .
"Steve's been great to work with. I think he showed an incredible amount of maturity and poise his rookie year. He came into probably as difficult a situation as any player that I've ever – rookie player – that I've brought on to a team with the expectations that were with him and, obviously, with what Adam [Vinatieri] had done before he was here. Steve's been really consistent through all of these years. [He's] a very hard worker, has earned the respect of his teammates, he does everything that the team does in terms of training and conditioning and so forth. He's not on a special kicker program or anything like that. [He's] very accountable, dependable, physically and mentally tough player. I've been very fortunate here to have two of the best kickers that have ever played in the National Football League as the head coach here, so I feel very fortunate to have had Steve and Adam, " Belichick said before Friday's practice.
One of the traits Belichick praised about Gostkowski, who is in the final year of his contact (Gostkowski refused to answer whether there have been discussions about a contract extension), was his ability to remain even keeled. Even if Gostkowski goes through a rough stretch he does not get too upset. For every one ball he kicks in a game, he kicks a thousand balls in practice. Fans often only remember the missed kicks and not the 90-95 percent of kicks he made in practice. Gostkowski noted that as a field goal kicker - there is no hiding failure - a kick is either made or missed.
"The times you do miss - there is no hiding it. Everyone can see it. I think it stinks. It is embarrassing - you can get really down on yourself - you just need to have the internal fortitude to get over it. It is important not to get too high when you are doing good, because you can get humbled really easily."
Asked how he avoids worrying too much about the next kick when he has not missed the previous one, Gostkowski showed why he has the ideal personality for his position.
"It just might be a personality trait. To survive as a field goal kicker - you can either make it or miss it. When you miss it everyone see it, everyone knows it. It's a very easy position to see when you screw up. When you miss a kick - it's stinks, it's embarrassing and it sucks. It's really easy to get down on yourself and lose confidence, but you just can't. You hurt the team worse if you left a few bad kicks turn into a lot. Things happen throughout games and seasons, but you always have to keep your confidence and faith in what you do. I try to do that and I try to do this to the best of my ability."
Gostkowski fondly recalls his rookie year when he had more energy, no grey hair, no wife and no children. Gostkowski recognized Vinatieri made probably the three most important kicks in Pats history (the kick in the snow against the Oakland Raiders, the game winner against the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl, and the game winner against the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bwol) and never tried to compare himself to the former Pats kicker. He jokes that he is not kicking next to Vinatieri every day. He seems thankful for that. Gostkowski appeared caught off guard by Belichick's praise, but is thankful for any praise that he receives. Kicking in football is similar to relief pitching in baseball - in that in both roles one spends a lot of time waiting for limited action.
"You gotta have a couple good days and then a bad day. You need to learn to get over it. Kicking is a weird thing - you can have stretches and stretches of things going really good and then you can have one or two kicks that can derail you - you have to just ride the wave."
If Gostkowski has a bad day, he just tries to do better the next day. To him, the past is the past. Gostkowski joked that he doesn't know how long he wants to play. Brady wants to play until he is 45. Gostkowski, 34, does not know if there will be special teams when he is 45 when asked if he has the same desire as Brady.
But one thing is for sure, Gostkowski has earned the respect of Bill Belichick who was a special teams coach in his younger days with the New York Giants. Gostkowski's work ethic has set an example with the rest of the team.
"Steve's very even-keeled there. Sure, yeah, those things come up with the team. Steve's a good example for all of us; all players and coaches. He's got a very professional attitude. He's a good teammate but he works hard at his job, to do his job well to help the team, and that's really the motto for all of us – to be good teammates, but to do our jobs so everybody can count on us and put everything we have into it to be able to help the team. He certainly does that. Kickoffs – what we've asked him to do with kickoffs in the last couple of years. He's worked very hard at it. He's improved tremendously. He's one of the top kickoff kickers in the league in terms of kickoffs, placement, distance. He can do a lot of different things with the ball and helps our team out in a lot of different ways besides just kicking field goals and extra points. He's a very level-headed, even-keeled guy that's matured and has gone from a rookie to now one of our most experienced players and one of our top leaders."
Gostkowski is not Adam Vinatieri. He is a different person. He hopes to be remembered as Stephen Gostkowski - not Adam Vinatieri's successor. He is likely better on kickoffs then Vinatieri, but worse on field goals.
Whatever the case maybe, he is not one to make the comparison. He is just worried about tomorrow's practice.
Notes: All players were present at practice Friday including Malcolm Mitchell who missed Thursday's practice. Marcus Cannon left practice early, but will likely return Saturday. The practice largely was not memorable except for a couple great catches by Julian Edelman. Brian Hoyer made a nice throw to back of the end zone to hit Edelman for a touchdown. Too bad Edelman will not be seen until October with his four game suspension. Stephon Gilmore had an impressive interception that was similar to the one at the the end of the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. Former Patriots Lonnie Paxton and Tiquan Underwood were in attendance. Brady and Paxton, the former long snapper, seem to have a strong bond. After all, who can forget his celebration after the Pats beat the Rams in the Super Bowl in 2002.