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."
Vinatieri made the Pro Bowls in 2002 and 2004. He spent 10 seasons with the Patriots and is the leading scorer in team history. And he began this season as the fifth most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history.
But this year Gostkowski is the most accurate kicker in the AFC, making 30 of 33 field goal attempts (90.9 percent). Vinatieri has had fewer chances, going 16 for 20 (80 percent) and has 39 fewer points than Gostkowski's conference-leading 124.
Gostkowski has made 85.5 percent of his career field goal attempts, slightly better than Vinatieri's 82.2.
Lonie Paxton has been the long snapper for both of them with the Patriots.
"It's fun having someone who you can rely on back there," he said. "It's definitely rewarding when they get accolades and you're a part of it. You might not get recognized, but they know that you've (provided) some help in it."
Gostkowski, Paxton said, "gets better every year and he's got his own style."
With the Patriots probably needing to win their remaining two games to have a chance for the playoffs, Gostkowski can't afford to slip up Sunday against Arizona. There's a chance of snow late in the game.
"It's nothing you can worry or stress over. You've just got to deal with it," he said.
Paxton is confident Gostkowski can do that well, just as he had little doubt that the kicker wouldn't be intimidated by following Vinatieri.
"Being a kicker in the NFL, that's a tough job, regardless of whose shoes you fill. You've got the team relying on you," he said.
Gostkowski provided the margin of victory in three games this season. He went 4-for-4 in field goals in a nine-point win at the New York Jets, 3-for-3 in a seven-point win over St. Louis and 3-for-3 in a three-point win at Seattle.
"I just want to be remembered as a consistent player and a team player and a guy who, when your team needs you, is going to step up," the Pro Bowl kicker said. "That's a lot more rewarding to me than any kind of accolade you can get. But it's nice to get some along the way."
Tale of the Tape
|Stephen Gostkowski||Adam Vinatieri|
|Years in NFL||3rd||13th|
|FGs||71-830, .855||327-398, .822|
|PATs||152-155, .981||491-500, .982|
|Super Bowl titles||0||4|
|Probowls||1 (2008)||2 (2002, 2004)|