Gostkowski has been routinely proficient

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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On game days, Stephen Gostkowski casts himself as an observer.

“I’m just a fan of the game,’’ he said, “until it crosses the 50.’’

The passivity, like everything about the routine Gostkowski has honed as the Patriots’ kicker, is purposeful. He wants to ward off any thoughts about kicking, uplifting or nasty, until his time to act draws near.

Gostkowski rises above the many stresses that yank at any kicker by ignoring them.

“I don’t worry about getting cut,’’ he said, and there is no need. Gostkowski has answered every question since he took over for Adam Vinatieri in 2006.

He stepped out of Vinatieri’s shadow in the playoffs his rookie season, when he drilled a game-winning field goal against the Chargers in the second round. It remains the most clutch kick of his career. Today, and perhaps in the coming weeks, that could change.

As they prepare to face the Ravens, the Patriots find themselves a more vulnerable playoff team than at any point in their recent past. Tom Brady is dinged. They are playing without Wes Welker, their leading receiver and their beating heart.

Any victory in these playoffs figures to be close, and so the season may rest on the powerful right leg of Stephen Gostkowski.

“I don’t think about that,’’ he said.

For a kicker to be one of the best working today, statistically speaking, he has to be one of the best ever. Gostkowski is. Among those who have made at least 100 field goals, he ranks fifth all-time in field goal percentage at 85.1.

His consistency owes, in part, to the way he approaches every kick. He developed a simple system to conserve his concentration. First, when the Patriots haven’t advanced the ball past midfield, he simply watches.

“A lot of times you can be so geeked up for a game and not kick a field goal until the fourth quarter,’’ Gostkowski said. “It’s hard to mentally keep your focus that long if you’re not physically out there doing anything.’’

Once the Patriots cross the 50, Gostkowski moves into “game mode.’’ He repeats in his mind pointers that helped him kick well in practice during the week. He ambles to the kicking net and boots three to five balls. He drinks some water.

He then simulates his pre-kick paces and envisions the field goal - the snap coming back, his steps in the right order, the ball sailing between the uprights. He stops looking at the action on the field, although he sometimes finds himself hoping the Patriots score a touchdown. On third down, he starts to concentrate. Mostly, he waits to hear a coach scream, “Field goal!’’

The distance, the weather, the game situation - none of it matters. Gostkowski condenses his focus into one thought, something like “keep your head down’’ or “don’t kick it too hard.’’ Recently, he has been telling himself, “You’re going to make it.’’

“Going out there to make it,’’ he said, “is a lot different than going out there to not miss.’’

Volatile profession
Kicking in the NFL has never been better. The best six years in history for leaguewide field goal percentage are the last six; it topped out last year at 84.5 and dropped to 81.3 this season. The improvement is not marginal, either. It is a quantum leap. The only man in the Hall of Fame who kicked exclusively is Jan Stenerud. His career field goal percentage was 66.8. A kicker with that percentage today couldn’t survive training camp.

And yet, the profession remains volatile as ever. A quarter of teams changed kickers this season, including three that made the playoffs. Today’s opponents, the Ravens, waived Steven Hauschka in midseason and signed Billy Cundiff - who had been cut by the Browns.

“We’re kind of victims of our own success,’’ said Morten Andersen, the all-time leader in field goals. “If the norm was 70 percent and you had an 80 percent year, you’d be an All-Pro. Kickers across the board have gotten so much better.’’

Andersen’s experience allows him to sort out the kickers who can handle the demands of the job, the expectations. Is he competitive? What’s his body language?

“I look in the eyes,’’ Andersen said. “I look at the guy’s demeanor. You can tell. Is he holding his breath? Is he slouching?’’

Andersen has never worked with Gostkowski, but he watches NFL games and he has seen Gostkowski kick.

“He looks confident to me,’’ Andersen said. “I don’t see him looking down if he misses a kick.’’

To Jake Ingram, Gostkowski’s confidence manifests itself in calm. Ingram met Gostkowski last spring during the first team workouts of the offseason. Ingram was Gostkowski’s new long snapper. One of Ingram’s first impressions about Gostkowski was, simply, that he was friendly.

“I’ve never really seen him real down,’’ Ingram said. “If something were to go wrong he’s not going to jump all over you. That’s a good thing we have, and it made it easy for me to adjust.’’

“People like Stephen,’’ said Rusty Clayton, Gostkowski’s long snapper at Memphis. “They’re drawn to him.’’

His friendly nature contributes to his success. There are a million reasons for a kicker to worry, and Gostkowski confines all of them to the field.

For struggling kickers, “things can come up, injuries, things in your life that are hard to block out,’’ Gostkowski said. “I don’t worry about getting cut. If I stopped playing football tomorrow, I’m happy with what I’ve done so far. This is more of a privilege than a right.’’

Ever the competitor
Gostkowski played a gaggle of sports growing up. His father never scolded him for his performance on the field, only for his reactions.

Gostkowski had a temper. During one Little League game, he stood on the mound as his team kept making errors. Gostkowski cried and yelled at teammates. Afterward, his father told him, “You can’t blame other people. You can only do what you can do.’’

His coach at Memphis, Tommy West, saw Gostkowski as different from other kickers he coached. He blended in during conditioning drills. Other players made him part of the team. West called him “Gotti.’’

“Gotti is one of those guys with the game on the line, he hopes it comes down to him,’’ said West. “That just goes back to the competitor he is. He wanted to be on the mound in the bottom of the ninth. I guarantee you he hopes it comes down to him.’’

When it did, he delivered. In his junior season, against Conference USA power East Carolina, the score was tied with less than a minute left, and Memphis was driving.

The offense crossed the 50. Gostkowski started warming up. Fans leaned over the railing and heckled him. A girl blew kisses at him. For Gostkowski, nothing changed. With six seconds left, he trotted on for a 35-yarder.

“I had complete confidence he was going to make it,’’ said Clayton. Gostkowski did.

“Just because the game is on the line or this could win the game, it can’t change what I do,’’ Gostkowski said. “The field goals don’t get any wider. They don’t get any shorter. It’s just trying to do the same thing.

“A lot of the time, people make mistakes. They get in a game-winning situation, their adrenaline is pumping so much, they try to kill the ball. That’s sometimes when maybe they start missing. I just try to slow everything down, slow the game down.’’

When Gostkowski made his winning kick three years ago in San Diego, even after he slowed the game down, it happened fast.

If the circumstances are right, it could happen again today. The Patriots will cross the 50. Gostkowski will stir on the sideline. Footballs will boom into the net, he’ll drink water, a coach will yell, “Field goal!’’ Gostkowski will tell himself he’s going to make it.

The snap will zip back, the clock will tick down, Gostkowski will take his first step, the stadium will freeze.

“He’ll make it,’’ West said. “I’m telling you, he’ll make it.’’

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