FOXBORO — When the New England Patriots let Super Bowl star Adam Vinatieri leave as a free agent, fans wondered how long it would take to find another outstanding kicker.
Not very long.
Stephen Gostkowski has achieved a feat that his clutch predecessor didn't: make the Pro Bowl in just his third pro season.
"I respect everything he's done and hope I can do half the things that he does in his career," Gostkowski said yesterday. "When fans or somebody come up to me and say, 'We haven't missed that guy,' it's nice to hear."
Vinatieri provided the winning margin in all three of the Patriots' Super Bowl wins.
He kicked a field goal on the last play of a 20-17 win over St. Louis in 2002, another with 4 seconds left in a 32-29 win over Carolina in 2004, and the one that put New England ahead to stay in a 24-21 win over Philadelphia in 2005.
But after the next season he was gone. The Patriots decided not to put the franchise tag on him, which would have cost them $3 million for one season, and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
Some fans were upset that he had joined one of the Patriots' top rivals. Others were angry that the Patriots didn't do more to keep a player who now holds the NFL record for most postseason field goals.
But the Patriots thought a lot of Gostkowski. Why else would they draft him in the fourth round, early for a kicker, out of Memphis in 2006?
Still, he knew he was following one of the best kickers in NFL history.
"Any time you come in after a guy who's done what Vinatieri did, it's a little tough," Gostkowski said one day after being named to the AFC squad, "but it's nothing I ever thought about. He paved the way for kickers and has gotten kickers a lot of respect."