FOXBOROUGH -- The specter of Adam Vinatieri lingers. It lingered before the most beloved kicker in Patriots history returned, albeit briefly. And it will continue to linger. Because with just 12 field goal attempts in his first half-season in the NFL, Stephen Gostkowski hasn't quite built up enough equity with a fan base used to near-perfection to erase No. 4.
Which is not to say he won't.
With the inconsistency that often plagues introductions to the NFL, Gostkowski has demonstrated the strong and accurate leg he honed at the University of Memphis amid maddening miscues that have cost the Patriots points. That was never more evident than in a sequence in last Sunday's game against the Colts, a four-minute period that included both a made field goal from 49 yards and, after an Indianapolis fumble, a 36-yarder that sailed wide right.
"It's always upsetting when you miss, especially when you know you can make it," Gostkowski said Wednesday. "I felt good after the 49-yarder. Maybe I was just a little too excited about what happened, the turnover, that I lost concentration. And, you know, usually when kickers miss it's a lapse in concentration, something they did wrong.
"It's a process. I've missed field goals before. I'm sure I'll miss them again. You just try to minimize as many times as you can. It happens to everybody. It happened to the guy on the other team. It happens to the best of the best."
And acknowledging that fact, keeping his confidence at a level that allows him to compete in one of the most mental of positions, will go a long way toward keeping his career arc following that of that "guy on the other team."
That's why, already, holder Josh Miller sees enough out of Gostkowski to make the ultimate comparison in these parts, especially in the wake of Vinatieri's return.
"Here's the wise lion, and here's a cub," Miller said. "The cub has a lot of talent, he comes from good genes, he's got a strong leg. Well, he's not done, the wise lion. I see a comparison. When Adam was a rookie, his numbers weren't off-the-chart fabulous [27 of 35 on field goals]. What he did was survive, and that's what you do as a placekicker in your rookie year, you survive. You make it to your next year."
Because, while his first year hasn't exactly been forgettable, it hasn't been perfect, either. Twelve field goal attempts into his professional career, Gostkowski has converted eight, with two misses and two blocks.
That's not exactly a large sample, but it's enough.
"I think any time that a player is a skill player, there's a fine line between a very good play and a play that's not so good," coach Bill Belichick said of Gostkowski's inconsistencies. "It's the little things, the little adjustments, that if you don't do it right -- whether it's hitting a golf ball, or kicking a football, or trying to make a jump shot -- everything needs to be right. It's a unit. Every time you're operating with a unit play, like you are on a field goal kick, it's just different than a golf swing or a jump shot, I would say. There's the whole timing involved of the unit as well. That means we've got to keep working on it."
Gostkowski refused to blame the playing surface at Gillette Stadium, which was resodded before last Sunday's game. Though it would have been easy for him to mention the sand box from which he was expected to kick, Gostkowski said that other than investigating conditions in pregame warm-ups and making sure not to kick out of a hole, nothing about his process changed based on whether he was trying to split the uprights at Gillette or a controlled environment such as the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
In other words, it's him. It's not the turf.
Starting today against the Jets, Gostkowski gets a reprieve for the rest of the regular season from lining up across the field from his predecessor. Now he just needs to prove to his coaching staff and teammates that he can be trusted to convert with the clock running down. Or even, as in the game against the Colts, on the 19-yard line.
Instead of handing the ball over to Gostkowski and the field goal team, Belichick went for it on fourth and 3 late in the first quarter of last Sunday's game, resulting in a 14-yard completion from Tom Brady to Kevin Faulk. Was the decision made because of a lack of faith in the kicker? Was the decision made with the knowledge that field goals weren't going to keep the Patriots in the game against the Colts' explosive offense?
It doesn't matter. Not anymore. Gostkowski is on to the next game, and the next opponent, and the next kick. Miller has few doubts about the player now next to him in the locker room, the one with whom he spends much of his days.
Miller, in Gostkowski's ear with a veteran's knowledge and perspective, has reminded his young teammate repeatedly that to have success he has to enjoy what he's doing. Patience and experience (and a good attitude) remain necessary to push the kicker from rookie to steady, from close to confident. And, according to Miller, there is no question he'll get there. Maybe not in the second half of the season, but eventually.
"I've only tried 12 field goals in my NFL career," Gostkowski said. "I can't start looking at, 'Hey, I'm not doing good enough' or 'Hey, I'm doing great.' Halfway through the season I've got plenty of time to go and redeem myself and have good games. We're 6-2. I'm more worried about that than any kind of numbers that I would be putting up.
"I definitely would like to be doing a little better. I tried nine field goals in four games in preseason and I've tried 12 in eight games [in the regular season]. It's hard to get on a roll sometimes. I can't grade myself because it's my first NFL season. I'm going to let the coaches and whoever else wants to evaluate me. I'm trying my hardest to help this team win. Just doing whatever I can."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.