For kickers, it’s hit or miss

One boot can be defining moment

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 24, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Two kicks, two results, two very different sideline reactions. One conclusion: Being a placekicker in the NFL comes with a whole bunch of stress.

Lonely, isolated, subjected to long-held whispers that they’re not really part of the team, kickers exist for one simple reason. They try to send the ball through the uprights, often with the outcome of a game at stake.

Succeed at the right moment and a kicker might never be forgotten. Fail at the wrong moment and a kicker also might never be forgotten.

It’s hardly a thankless job, even though only one true placekicker (Jan Stenerud) is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Patriots fans have been thanking Billy Cundiff ever since the Baltimore kicker’s 32-yard attempt to tie the score with 11 seconds left in Sunday’s AFC Championship game veered wide left. Instead of going to overtime, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, with a surprising miss by Cundiff - he had been perfect from that distance and closer all season - helping to send them there.

Cundiff missed, and Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes made his overtime kick from 31 yards in New York’s 20-17 victory over San Francisco in the NFC Championship game. The situations weren’t the same - a miss by Tynes would have extended the game; Cundiff’s miss effectively ended it - but they served as a reminder about how important the kicker’s role can be.

“You can be immortal, like Adam Vinatieri, or you can live in infamy, like Scott Norwood, and it can all be based on one kick,’’ said Jay Feely, a 10-year NFL veteran who has played for five teams, including Arizona this season.

Feely was referring to two well-known kickers, for vastly different reasons. Vinatieri, now with the Colts, is a Patriots’ icon, kicking game-winning field goals in two Super Bowls, and coming through in numerous other big-game opportunities. Norwood pushed his 47-yard game-winning bid wide right on the game’s final play, costing the Bills in a 20-19 Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 1991.

Kickers share a unique bond, almost a fraternal relationship. They’re frequently the first on the field for warm-ups, and find each other after games. If anyone can understand something that happened to a kicker during a game, it’s another kicker.

In fact, Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko momentarily forgot what Cundiff’s miss and Sunday’s victory meant. He and Cundiff are friends, with Mesko working Cundiff’s camp in Iowa while in college, and pointing to the eight-year veteran as something of a mentor, even though Cundiff kicks and Mesko punts.

Knowing that Cundiff was gutted, Mesko sought him out.

“I gave him a hug, told him it could have been any of us,’’ Mesko said. “It took me a while to even start celebrating. At first when I saw him I was like, ‘Ooooh.’ Then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m on the other team.’ You don’t like anyone being scrutinized over something like that, but it’s what we sign up for.’’

Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots’ placekicker, wasn’t in the mood to share his feelings about Cundiff’s miss yesterday, but he did express empathy for his counterpart after Sunday’s game.

Gostkowski knows that big kicks under pressure come with the territory.

“I put as much pressure on myself to make the first kick as the last, but that’s me personally, I can’t speak for anybody else in that situation,’’ he said. “You take it very seriously, you want to come through for your team.

“You’re only a few plays away from the road, being on the street, looking for another job.’’

Cundiff, to his credit, hasn’t hid from the heat, both after the game and yesterday, saying, “You understand what goes on with the game and the position I play. Everyone’s going to be there to pat you on the back when you make the kick. And when things don’t go the way you want them to, you’ve got to take a lot of the blame.’’

How a kicker reacts to adversity - and how hard they work before that - goes a long way toward how they’ll be viewed by teammates, said Feely, who called placekicking the least respected position in sports in a Twitter post following Cundiff’s miss.

Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said Gostkowski, in his sixth year, doesn’t need to worry about feeling excluded.

“With our kicker, he’s a great guy, we view him as one of our own,’’ Slater said. “Yes, they’re kind of separate, but that’s because they have to be, they have to go work on their craft, and they can’t do that with us when we’re practicing offensively and defensively.’’

The recent focus might be on kicks that helped decide who plays in the Super Bowl, but Gostkowski said the right approach and the right routine can always help deal with the pressure, which he said he feels every time he kicks.

“You’ve got to be ready for any kick at any time,’’ Gostkowski said. “A kick missed in the first quarter can have an outcome on the game just as much as the last one. There’s also games where you kick a field goal in the first quarter and you end up winning by three. Who knows what the outcome could be if [the kick] ended up differently?’’

For Gostkowski, he’s never had a chance at a last-second field goal in the playoffs, at least not yet.

Should the possibility present itself, maybe during the upcoming Super Bowl, at least one of his peers is confident he’ll make Patriots fans happy.

“He’s been excellent,’’ Feely said. “There probably wasn’t a kicker ever, literally ever, in the history of the NFL who stepped into a harder position than Gostkowski replacing Vinatieri, because of everything Adam did, because of how he did it, because of his iconic status.

“I did not expect Stephen to be able to step in there and to be able to thrive, and he has, and you have to give him a ton of credit. I’m sure the Patriots have a ton of confidence in him if it comes down to a game-winning kick.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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