By: Bob George/BosSports.net
July 16, 2007

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2006 New England Patriots. Today: special teams.

One measly kick defined his entire season.

The horror of it all. Adam Vinatieri, the best kicker in franchise history (and if you still think Gino Cappelletti is, Gino himself, being the nice man he is, will tell you Adam is the top man), bolted the Patriots about a year ago and took up shop in Indianapolis. It became the most vivid display of what is the downside of franchising a player (Asante Samuel is currently furnishing Chapter Two on this subject), and it left Patriot Nation aghast, shuddering over the thought of Vinatieri wearing the same uniform as Peyton Manning.

Even more sickening was this thought: Who would make all those clutch kicks for the Patriots now that Automatic Adam is gone? This issue would prevail upon everyone's thoughts more than what uniform Vinatieri would be wearing.

You don't see kickers drafted very often. The last time the Patriots drafted a kicker, it was Owen Pochman in the seventh round in 2001 (who wound up going to the Giants after training camp). The previous kicker draftees before Pochman were Scott "Missin'" Sisson in the fifth round in 1993, Teddy Garcia in the fourth round in 1988, then five different kickers dating back to 1982; in that year, Brian Clark, taken in the tenth round, was the first pure kicker drafted by the Patriots in franchise history, dating back to the AFL days. Vinatieri himself was an undrafted free agent whom Bill Parcells discovered in 1996 as a replacement for veteran Matt Bahr, at the time an extraordinary move given how loyal Parcells is to his veterans, Bahr being one such player.

The Patriots took Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round of last year's draft. Gostkowski received rave reviews while at Memphis, and was rated by most observers as one of the three best kickers available. Gostkowski came to Foxborough with two obvious mandates: Make everyone forget Vinatieri, and make everyone understand how replaceable kickers are.

Fortunately, it appears that Bill Belichick found the right guy. Gostkowski's regular season numbers were okay, not spectacular, but not bad. He hit 20 of 26 field goals (just under 77 percent) and made all but one of 44 extra point attempts. He made his only attempt beyond 50 yards (a 52-yarder against Chicago, the game which featured the debut of the new turf). He was sixth in the NFL in average kickoff yardage, and was in the top ten in touchbacks with 12.

But none of that matters, unless Gostkowski took after Missin' Sisson. Two things really mattered, Gostkowski's attitude and his ability to kick a clutch game-winning field goal. On both counts, he passed with flying colors.

To listen to Gostkowski do an interview, you get the impression that he is a guy who will not get flustered or intimidated when the chips are down. He was asked several times about feeling pressure, and every time Gostkowski gave a bunch of deadpan answers, treating the questions if they were annoying rather than probative. A good comparison is to listen to Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett do a postgame interview (which he does after every Fenway start). Beckett's bland and laid back demeanor is much like Gostkowski's, and it serves him well when the chips are down (lest we forget, Beckett threw a 2-0 complete game shutout at the Yankees when he was a Florida Marlin to clinch the 2003 World Series at Yankee Stadium).

During the regular season, Gostkowski never had that clutch chance. That moment, where everyone would finally find out what this Memphis rookie was made of, would come in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at San Diego. It was right out of the movie Cars, with Luigi telling Guido, "You will get your chance!" during the climactic final race.

Tom Brady bravely rallied the Patriots to a 21-21 tie (with a huge assist from Troy Brown), then the Patriots got the ball back following a Charger three-and-out. A 49-yard bomb from Brady to former Charger Reche Caldwell set up Gostkowski from 31 yards out with 1:14 left in regulation. Gostkowski drilled the winning field goal, and didn't even bat an eyelash while all of Patriot Nation nearly died of heart attacks worldwide.

Gostkowski's one kick validated a ton of issues and items. Granted, it was just one kick and it was two rungs down from the Super Bowl, which is Vinatieri's true playland (sorry, folks, he got another ring last year). But it did show that Gostkowski has a future here in New England, and a good one at that, as long has he continues to kick like Vinatieri and sound like Beckett.

Gostkowski's second lieutenants will remain Matt Cassel and Lonie Paxton. Cassel has developed into a nice holder, but Paxton may go down as one of the most underappreciated Patriots in recent memory. All he is famous for is snow angels, but Paxton has shown a great deal of consistency at the long snapper position for many years now (this will be his eighth season as a Patriot). Being a long snapper is something most fans take for granted (unless you remember Damien Woody and his inability to shotgun snap), and Paxton himself replaced another good man at that position, that being Mike Bartrum (who long-snapped for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI).

Josh Miller will return as punter, despite being lost for the season after week ten. Todd Sauerbrun filled in nicely in his stead, but Miller is Belichick's man. Miller still has a strong leg for a soon-to-be-37-year-old, and showed in 2004 that he makes punts that help win Super Bowls. He just needs to stay healthy and regain his past form. Belichick has confidence in Miller, a point hammered home by the fact that the former All-Pro Sauerbrun was let go at season's end.

Laurence Maroney, Ellis Hobbs and Kevin Faulk will begin the season vying for kickoff return specialist jobs. As a team, the Patriots led the NFL in kickoff return average, and Maroney was second among individual qualifiers behind Justin Miller of the Jets (Hobbs actually had the highest average of anyone with at least ten returns). Punt returns were pretty good also, as the Patriots as a team were third in the league in return average, and Faulk was fifth in the league among individuals. With Wes Welker now on board from Miami, look for him to either help out or unseat Faulk as the prime punt returner on the Patriots.

One area special teams coach Brad Seely needs badly to work on is his coverage teams. His punt coverage units were the seventh worst in the NFL (two touchdowns allowed), whereas the kickoff coverage teams were around the middle of the pack. The Patriots were often times victimized by opponents having good field position on change of possession. The players need work on better angles to the ball carriers, and need to understand their attack lanes better.

Of course, if Gostkowski would just learn how to kick the pig out of the end zone, it would solve one of those coverage problems right away. For right now, though, the clutch field goals will do just fine.

Last installment: coaching.


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