FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick typically keeps his answers brief during his training camp news conferences, but he deviated from his normal routine Friday to heap praise on New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The detour came after the coach was asked to recall Gostkowski’s first NFL training camp, in 2006, when he was assigned the unenviable task of replacing Patriots legend Adam Vinatieri.
“Steve’s been great to work with,” Belichick, a well-known special teams connoisseur, said. “I think he showed an incredible amount of maturity and poise his rookie year. He came into probably as difficult a situation as any player that I’ve ever — rookie player — that I’ve brought on to a team with the expectations that were with him and, obviously, with what Adam had done before he was here.
“Steve’s been really consistent through all of these years. … (He’s) a very accountable, dependable, physically and mentally tough player. I’ve been very fortunate here to have two of the best kickers that have ever played in the National Football League as the head coach here, so I feel very fortunate to have had Steve and Adam.”
Vinatieri was one of the central figures of the original Patriots dynasty, booting game-winning field goal in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, not to mention his two clutch kicks through a blizzard in the 2001 divisional round. When he left to sign with the Indianapolis Colts after the 2005 season, the Patriots a fourth-round draft pick on Gostkowski, who had played both football and baseball at Memphis.
“Man, that’s a long time ago,” Gostkowski recalled after Friday’s practice. “I remember having a lot more energy, no kids, I wasn’t married, didn’t have any gray hairs. I was young. I didn’t know any better. I was just excited to have an opportunity, which I still am today.”
New England brought in former Pro Bowler Martin Gramatica to compete with Gostkowski, but the rookie won the job that summer and has yet to relinquish it. Now 34 and entering his 13th pro season, he’s the second-longest-tenured Patriot behind quarterback Tom Brady.
“I know I got a ton of questions about (Vinatieri my first year), and every time every season starts, I get more questions about it,” said Gostkowski, whose 87.6 percent career field goal success rate ranks third in NFL history. “But everything he did was so good for the game of football and for kickers in general. He gave kickers a lot of respect — earned us a lot of respect. He went out there and did it in the toughest situations, and you tip your hat to a guy like that and tell him ‘thank you.’ ”
After a costly missed point-after in the 2015 AFC Championship Game and an uncharacteristically erratic 2016 season, Gostkowski came back strong in 2017. He converted 92.5 percent of his field goals (fifth-best in the league) and 45 of 47 extra points while also being, in Belichick’s expert opinion, one of the league’s top kickoff men.
As for Vinatieri? He’s still kicking, too. This season will be the 45-year-old’s 23rd in the NFL.
“There might not be kicking in the NFL by the time I get to 45,” Gostkowski said.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images