So far, so good for Vinatieri's replacement
Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Pressure rolled off Stephen Gostkowski's back as smoothly as the football flew off his foot and sent New England to another AFC championship game.
Bill Belichick didn't hesitate to send Gostkowski out for the winning field goal at San Diego. The Patriots coach had done that so many times with Adam Vinatieri.
And, just like Vinatieri, the cool rookie came through in a big playoff game.
Gostkowski easily made his 31-yarder with 1:10 left Sunday, giving the Patriots a 24-21 win and stunning the favored Chargers in their home Sunday. The "k" in Gostkowski is as silent as the crowd, screaming for the Chargers throughout the game, fell when his kick sailed through the uprights.
"He's doing great," Tom Brady said. "Cross your fingers, hope it lasts another week."
The kick, as important as it was, was a prelude to an even bigger game Sunday — against Vinatieri and the Indianapolis Colts, with the winner going to the Super Bowl. Vinatieri's kicks already have won two of them for the Patriots, one on the final play of a 20-17 win over St. Louis in 2002, the other with 4 seconds left in a 32-29 victory over Carolina in 2004.
That's what Gostkowski had to follow when the Patriots chose him in the fourth round of the April draft, one month after Vinatieri ended 10 seasons as a Patriot by signing as a free agent with the Colts.
So far, so good for the 22-year-old rookie.
He's made all six of his field goal attempts in the playoffs after connecting on 12 of his last 14 in the regular season. His leg is stronger than Vinatieri's and he even did something his predecessor never did in the playoffs. His 50-yard field goal that gave the Patriots a 3-0 lead over the Chargers is the longest in the team's postseason history.
The distance didn't surprise his coach at Memphis, Tommy West. But the accuracy took a lot of hard work from the day he walked on to the college team after receiving a baseball scholarship.
"When he came to Memphis, strong leg, no accuracy," West said Tuesday while on a recruiting trip in Alabama. "It was dangerous to stand on the other side of the line. He made himself into the kind of kicker he is."
Gostkowski's winning field goal was his first since a 35-yarder with 6 seconds left gave Memphis a 38-35 win at East Carolina. The stage is much bigger now, but he considers every attempt a pressure kick.
"If you can't handle pressure, you shouldn't be in the business," he said the day he was drafted. "You want to be able to kick that game-winning kick, because that's where people fall in love with you, kicking the ones that count. Everybody can make a million field goals and then miss the big one, and that's all (people) think about."
Gostkowski beat out veteran Martin Gramatica in training camp and made a clutch kick in his first pro game — a 32-yarder with 9:33 left that tied Buffalo 17-17 in a game the Patriots won 19-17.
"Stephen puts pressure on himself to make every kick," West said, "so he probably doesn't feel added pressure in big situations."
As the season wore on, though, Belichick went for a first down rather than try a field goal on fourth down more often than in past seasons. That sparked speculation he might not have enough confidence in Gostkowski.
"Why wouldn't you get closer, no matter who your kicker was?" he asked the week before the Patriots 37-16 first-round playoff win over the New York Jets.
But might he be more likely to approach a winning kick differently for a proven veteran like Vinatieri than a rookie who never had to try one in the NFL?
"No, not this one," Belichick said before the Jets game, "because I have confidence in him."
A few days later, Gostkowski was perfect on field goals of 20, 28 and 40 yards.
Belichick had done his homework.
"We coached him really hard. We don't coach our kickers any different than our linebackers or anybody else," West said. "When we were asked by the Patriots, 'Can he take hard coaching?' we said there's no doubt."
Gostkowski made 20 of 26 field goals this season, and two of his misses were blocked. He missed just one of 44 extra points. Vinatieri was 25-for-28 on field goals, with two misses coming in a 27-20 Indy win at New England.
Now Gostkowski is going into Vinatieri's indoor stadium. His goal is to make all his kicks, not to erase memories of the star he replaced.
"I'm not looking to impress anybody, to fill anybody's shoes," he said on draft day.
Like Vinatieri, those shoes do more than kick. They also carry him toward kick returners so he's in position to stop them, if necessary.
"Stephen is not just a kicker. He's an athlete," West said. "He'd be one of the first guys down there trying to make a tackle."
Vinatieri did that when he was a rookie, saving a touchdown by tackling Herschel Walker of Dallas after a 70-yard return.
"Well," West said, "it sounds like they got the same guy."
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