By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There are three things you need to know about Stephen Gostkowski. One’s from the very beginning of his NFL career, one’s from the end, and the other takes place along the way.
Let’s start with the end — or, close to it. Feb. 3, 2019. Super Bowl LIII. Patriots. Rams. Nobody could score a damn point. Fifty-three minutes into the game, the Patriots finally scored the game’s first touchdown, taking a 10-3 lead. Minutes later, a Stephon Gilmore interception and some clock-killing work by Sony Michel put the Patriots in position to win the whole thing.
Facing fourth-and-inches at the Rams’ 24-yard line, Bill Belichick called timeout. He knew if he sent the offense back onto the field to pick up a yard, the Patriots would be able to take a knee and drain the clock. He gave it serious consideration.
That was right up until Tom Brady — aka the most competitive athlete the sports world has ever seen, the most successful quarterback in NFL history, the greatest winner in pro sports — expressed some frustration.
“Why don’t we just kick the field goal? It’s a 40-yarder. Forty-yarder. The game’s over.”
— Casey Baker (@CaseyBake16) February 6, 2019
This was Tom Brady, pleading with Bill Belichick. Coach, please take ME off the field. Let Steve kick. It’s the best route to victory.
That right there speaks volumes to the type of trust that Brady had in the kicker with whom he shared a locker room for a dozen years. Brady’s never once in his athletic life ever bet against himself, yet in this instance, he was simply betting on Gostkowski — even though the veteran kicker had missed a 46-yard attempt in the first quarter.
Gostkowski took the field with the rest of the field goal unit. He lined up his 41-yard kick with 1:16 left in the Super Bowl.
“Here it is,” Tony Romo said on the CBS broadcast, cutting through what seemed like total silence inside Mecedes-Benz Stadium. “I’m going out on a limb and saying this is to win the Super Bowl.”
The snap. The hold. The kick. To viewers at home, it looked like it might hook left. But Gostkowski knew right off the foot that it was good. And Brady knew immediately that he and the Patriots had just won Super Bowl No. 6.
The knock — such as it was — on Gostkowski was always that he never had a “signature moment.” This kick — and the endorsement from Brady in the most critical moment of a Super Bowl — should work to forever dispel that notion.
With that, it’s worth getting into the first thing you need to know about Stephen Gostkowski, the thing that accompanied his entry into the NFL.
You have to understand: Stephen Gostkowski entered the NFL under impossible circumstances. Impossible.
Nobody ever wants to replace a legend. Or, nobody should ever want to replace a legend. It’s a lose-lose situation. Even if you’re perfect, you’ll never be as good as the last guy. And if you mess up? Good luck to you. You’re going to get buried.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone, let alone a 22-year-old who had gone to college on a baseball scholarship, not a football one.
Yet Bill Belichick liked what he saw out of Gostkowski during the kicker’s career at Memphis, enough to use a fourth-round draft pick — No. 118 overall — to select the kicker.
If you forgot, that selection came after Belichick allowed Adam Vinatieri to depart via free agency — to join the rival Colts, no less. Patriots fans surely understood Belichick’s desire to not pay the kicker at the top of the market, but this was no minor move.
If the criticism of Gostkowski was that he lacked “signature moments,” then Vinatieri was the exact opposite. The Snow Bowl (times two). Super Bowl XXXVI. Super Bowl XXXVIII. Some of the biggest kicks in Patriots history — and NFL history — came off the right foot of Vinatieri. He was responsible in a significant way for the greatest run the franchise and its fanbase had ever experienced.
And now he was gone. Replaced by Stephen Gostkowski. Who hit just 70 of his 92 field goals in college, where he also missed six of his 165 PATs.
He was going to replace Adam Vinatieri?
Well, he did.
Not right away, granted. He had just a 76.9 percent success rate on field goals as a rookie, going 20-for-26. But he did drill a 50-yard field goal in the first half of a playoff game against the Chargers (who were five-point favorites), and then he absolutely nailed a 31-yarder to win the game in the final minutes.
Winning a playoff game on the road against a team you weren’t supposed to beat is a pretty solid way to try to replace a legend.
The next week in Indianapolis, Gostkowski was 4-for-4 on PATs and 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 43-yarder to give the Patriots a lead with just 3:49 left in the game. Alas, the Patriots’ defense could not make the stop needed to punch a ticket to Super Bowl XLI.
Vinatieri went on to win that Super Bowl in his first year with the Colts, helping to exacerbate any and all negative feelings some fans might have held about letting the kicker go in the first place.
Now would probably be the time to get to the third thing you need to know about Stephen Gostkowski — that he was one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the sport throughout his career in New England.
In his second year — the 16-0 season — he was much improved at 21-for-24 (87.5 percent) on field goals, and he led the league with 74 PATs (he was a perfect 74-for-74). Had Belichick trusted him to attempt a 49-yarder in Super Bowl LII, they may have gone 19-0.
The next year — aka the Matt Cassel year — Gostkowski was relied upon much more, and he delivered. He led the league in field goals, going 36-for-40 on those while remaining perfect on PATs. In year three, he was the best kicker in the NFL, named a First Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.
After that, Gostkowski just kept making field goals. Lots and lots of field goals. And a whole lot of extra points.
From 2008-2019, Gostkowski successfully kicked 333 of his 378 field goal attempts, an 88.1 percent success rate.
Of those 45 misses, 10 came from 50 or more yards out, and 24 misses came from the 40-49-yard range.
From inside of 40 yards, Gostkowski was 218-for-229, a 95.1 percent success rate.
For a kicker in the Northeast, who plays in all conditions, who’s only played 15 regular-season games indoors in his entire career … that is simply ridiculous. (He’s 93.5 percent successful on field goals and 97.8 percent successful on PATs in games indoors or under a retractable roof.)
And on the all-time kicking leaderboards, it certainly shows. As it stands now, he owns the fifth-best career field goal percentage of all time, at 87.383 percent.
But that list includes Harrison Butker, who has 321 fewer field goal attempts than Gostkowski. And it includes Josh Lambo, who’s attempted 289 fewer kicks. AND it includes Will Lutz, who’s attempted 292 fewer kicks.
The only kicker who’s really above Gostkowski on that list is Justin Tucker, at an impressive 90.753 percent. Yet even Tucker has attempted 136 fewer kicks than Gostkowski.
That’s not to argue that Gostkowski is the best kicker of all time, or the second-best kicker of all time, or anything of the sort. More goes into that equation than merely statistics.
It is to say that the negativity that’s often heaped upon Gostkowski — for the missed PAT in Denver, or the missed PAT vs. Philly, or the missed PAT vs. Atlanta, or that missed game-winner vs. the Cardinals — has shown more than anything a unique lack of perspective on the part of New Englanders with regard to what actual kicking problems resemble.
It also just wasn’t accurate. By the end of his Patriots career, he was 88-for-92 on PATs (95.7 percent) and 39-for-44 on field goals (88.6 percent). During Vinatieri’s legendary Patriots career, he was 26-for-34 (76.5 percent) on postseason field goals. During the dynastic run of 2001-04, Vinatieri was 18-for-22 (81.8 percent).
Suffice it to say, Gostkowski served as a fairly suitable replacement for Vinatieri, wouldn’t you say?
It obviously wasn’t just about numbers, either. He made some truly astounding kicks.
Like this one, aided by the thin air of Mexico City:
And this one, a 57-yarder in Dallas that would have been good from 67:
(Based on Brady’s and Belichick’s reactions, it was no shock to see Gostkowski drill a 57-yard field goal.)
And this one, a very casual 54-yarder in the Meadowlands in December as the final seconds ticked off the clock:
He won a game or two along the way, too.
(Did you remember that Houston kick from 2013? Betcha didn’t.)
But of course, Gostkowski never kicked a 45-yard field goal through a driving snowstorm in one of the most iconic games in NFL history, and he didn’t kick an OT winner moments later in that same game. Likewise, he didn’t kick a 48-yarder to complete one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history a couple of weeks later.
And so, his career never really had the benefit of having the proper framing. Each time he missed a kick, he was often discussed as if he was the only kicker to ever miss a kick — even though he successfully kicked field goals better than most humans on earth … for more than a dozen years. Each time he made a kick, well, that’s what he’s supposed to do, isn’t it?
Even those who weren’t overly critical of the kicker might not have fully appreciated how good the Patriots had it for so long. Last year’s kicker carousel after Gostkowski’s injury likely provided a blunt reality check to many.
Sometimes, the career speaks for itself. One of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, owner of the longest successful PAT streak (at 479), twice a First-Team All-Pro, once a Second Team All-Pro, four times a Pro Bowler, and most important, three times a Super Bowl champion.
You take all of that, then you consider how his career started and how it (for all intents and purposes) ended? Outside of Adam Vinatieri, you’d truly be hard-pressed to draw up a more ideal career for any kicker, let alone a kicker making the absolute most out of an impossible situation.