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Reliable and Ready, and always applying the pressure

Posted Aug 5, 2014

Kickers. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Is there a more thankless position on a football field, than that of a kicker? You take them for granted when they do well and make the tough kick; chastise, complain and even degrade them when they fail (oh, he’s just a kicker), and generally sneer at them when comparing them to their more, um, physically-imposing teammates.

And practicing. Do they practice? Most kickers operate in obscurity when it comes to practicing. Off on their own, doing their own thing, not really involved in offense…or defense…or playbook installation…or the game plan…or even worried about who’s next on the schedule. And in the past, because they’ve rarely been seen as “real” football players – at least compared to their teammates – some kickers have had a tendency to be a bit odd. Not all of them, mind you. But there have been barefoot kickers (like ex-Patriot Tony Franklin), foreign kickers with little knowledge of the game they’re trying to play (remember Toni Fritsch? Jan Stenerud? Martin Grammatica?), kickers who wear cleats two sizes smaller than their street shoes and kickers who boil their cleats in water so the leather conforms to their feet.

Former Dallas placekicker Chris Boniol did that, with his foot still in the shoe, too.

Yeah. Some kickers might be a bit odd. But unless the NFL decides to do away with them completely, they’ll be around for a while longer. The pre-season will see experimentation with a longer extra-point attempt, with traditional PAT’s becoming almost automatic. There have even been whispers about the kicking game disappearing altogether, because “it’s just not football.”

And kickers may very well be the most valuable player for a team on the field, when it comes to the difference between winning and losing.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they have one of the best in the game today in Stephen Gostkowski. It’s rare that a kicker is drafted (he was selected in 2006, in the 4th round out of Memphis)…but why is that? For a player entrusted with performing under pressure, for a player who is ALWAYS expected to come through…when you find a good one, why shouldn’t you draft them? New England thought as much of Gostkowski, and entering his 9th season in the NFL, he’s turned out to be the most accurate kicker in Patriots’ history (85.6% success rate for his career, 93% accurate in 2013), and one of the most reliable in the history of the league.

And those numbers come on the heels of having to step in for arguably one of the most popular players ever to wear a Patriot uniform – Super Bowl-winning placekicker Adam Vinatieri.

“I think the guys respect me,” Gostkowski said after a recent practice, which managed to include a fair share of special teams’ work through the kickoff teams, and the field goal unit. “I’ve put my time in in this league and proven myself, and I think (players, coaches) respect those who work hard and get the job done, and that’s all I’m trying to do on a daily basis.”

It’s not the typical life of a superstar athlete these guys generally have, however. During the majority of practice, kickers watch, they observe, they run onto the field at a split-second moments’ notice…and when they’re not otherwise engaged…they manufacture ways to make themselves better. Or, simply pass the time away until the next kick. Staying ready, staying engaged…that can take some work.

Concentration and focus are paramount. In a game, being able to handle a big moment is a given. It’s part of the job. When so much is expected out of the kicker, it almost seems unfair to apply that kind of pressure.

“If I get the chance to help my team win a game, I’m excited to get that opportunity,” Gostkowski said. “Coach (Belichick) says all the time you either feel pressure, or apply it. You try to apply it. I work too hard to get nervous in a situation where I have a chance to win a game. I’ve kicked the ball millions of times in my life…you just have to be ready for those situations and not let the moment get the best of you.”

In many ways, the kicker should be considered the most valuable player on the field, especially if you have a good one. Instead, the MVP praise is usually heaped upon the quarterback, a running back or receiver, or maybe a linebacker or defensive back. Rarely are kickers thought of as one of the stars…and some inside the sport have believed for years that kickers should barely register even an afterthought on the scale of self-worth. Denver kicker Matt Prater said before the Super Bowl last year that with kickoffs becoming de-valued, and extra points being messed around with, he fears kickers could one day be booted from the game, entirely.

Damn kickers. What good are they?

“If that’s what people think, they can think that. I’ve always had the old-school attitude, and I’m not gonna take that from anybody,” Gostkowski said, when it comes to defending his role and position. “I’m gonna do my job, and if you don’t like it, well, that’s your problem. We’re all about team here, everyone pulls for one another and if you’re one of the 32-best in the world at your job you’re ready for any situation that comes up. You get that from fans, too, and I just blow it off. Haha, whatever.”

Does he have any quirks, or any tricks of the trade that have helped him get where he is in the NFL? I mean, did he ever boil a kicking shoe with his foot still in it? Doesn’t sound much like Gostkowski fits the mold of a “goofy” kicker.

“You know, as you get older, I might look at (kicking) like setting up for a golf shot. But there’s really nothing that I’m anal about. Maybe in my first couple of years, but I’ve come to realize that stuff doesn’t help you. I just try to focus and have a positive attitude. “

Sheesh. Looking for a catchy quote or a funny story and get nothing but common sense. Kickers…can’t count on them for anything.

Maybe except this one, however.

John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots’ stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting “Patriots Playbook” during the season on Patriots.com Radio for 13 years, and broadcasting college football and basketball for the past 26 years, Rooke is also a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.

Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster

DISCLAIMER


The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on the View from Above column represent those of individual authors, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the New England Patriots organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. Authors' views are formulated independently from any inside knowledge and/or conversations with Patriots officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.

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