I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the end of this past season, when our beloved Patriots lost to the brash trash-talking New York Jets and their rotund maestro Rex Ryan, was nothing less than devastating. It is hard on us fans when our team- its future so full of expectations- falls flat on their face in the most important game of the season. This loss was especially hard. We laughed at Mr. Ryan’s expense as Wes Welker slyly made references to the Gang Green coach’s personal “foot”age becoming a hot topic in the media-centric sports world with which we’ve become inundated; Welker, a normal beacon of professionalism, heavily coded his speech, not knowing that it would be dissected over the course of the next few days again and again by the media and national sports pundits. Despite knowing better (hello, 2007 Giants ruining our perfect season), we used past results to gauge future expectations, and this oversight came back with a vengeance.
After New England’s 45-3 destruction of the Jets in Week 13, in which the 1st seed in the AFC east, a split of the season series, and a possible guaranteed playoff birth was on the line, there was seemingly no doubt that the opening playoff game was all but a wrap. Our high powered offense had managed no less than 31 points in the eight weeks leading up to the playoffs, and held opponents to a touchdown or less in half of those games. Their fearless leader, the long-locked MVP Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. was on a pace for his second Most Valuable Player award as he completed the season with an unheard of 36-4 touchdown to interception ratio and 300+ consecutive passes without a turnover to finish the season. The Pats were primed, and we were ROLLING. Finishing the season at 14-2, most had us early favorites for a Super Bowl- the fourth of Brady’s tenure, and the one that would tie him with Joe Montana- possibly catapulting him into place as the best quarterback of all time.
Then, it happened. A miserable touchdown loss to our hated rivals in a game that was completely uncharacteristic of the regular season Pats- filled with untimely turnovers, mental mistakes, and the man known in these parts as “Hoodie” being “outcoached” by his bombastic counterpart. Fingers were pointed and metaphorical (in some cases, actual) tears were shed. There were many plays left on the field, and three lauded as interchangeable scapegoats- Brady’s first drive interception (his first in 338 passes), tight end Alge Crumpler’s untimely drop in the end zone, and safety Patrick Chung’s botched fake punt conversion on a critical possession late in the second quarter while the game sat at 7-3. The Jets subsequently scored, going into the long intermission up a surmountable 14-3. All these plays definitively contributed to the end result, and each has it’s own merit in the argument for paramount factor in the loss. However, I believe there is a little-discussed factor that came into play in our loss- due to the absence of a player that never set foot in Gillette Stadium that day.
The big-footed University of Memphis product Stephen Gostkowski had been taken for granted in the minds of Patriot’s fanatics until his untimely demise in the shocking midseason loss to the surging Cleveland Browns- a team that rode high on the shoulders of the surprisingly excellent season of the “other Peyton”, Hillis. Hillis finished the game with 184 rushing yards and 220 all purpose yards; respectively stout numbers against a New England defense led by the mammoth Vince Wilfork that had started establishing a reputation as run-stuffers. With the exception of a surprisingly bad start for Stephen in the early goings of the 2010 season, he had put together a 100% conversion rate for extra points and a 67.9 yard average on kickoffs. The midseason loss of Gostkowski forced the Patriot’s to acquire an aging Shayne Graham, and subsequently place Stephen on Injured Reserve due to a torn quadriceps muscle. While Graham possessed fantastic numbers in terms of accuracy through the goal posts (12-12 for field goals, and 35-37 for extra points), the differential in leg strength to Gostkowski was evident: Shayne finished with a season average of 61.4 yards on kickoffs, and recorded a paltry 2 touchbacks in 57 kickoff attempts. Contrast that with Stephen’s kickoff numbers- while he only surpassed Shayne by 6.5 yards in average distance (67.9), he had kicked for 15 touchbacks in 42 attempts. In Bill Belichick’s system, consistency is the greatest asset a player can possess; with Gostkowski, the Hooded One could model his defensive system on his opposition frequently initiating possessions on the 20 yard line. With Graham, there was no such consistency, and the bend-but-not-break defense of this past decade’s Patriots suffered as a result. We didn’t see the full realization of this suffering until it mattered most- when it played a part in our playoff demise.
Shayne’s average kickoff yardage on the day was 44.8 yards, and that number is obviously skewed unfavorably by his onside attempts late in the game- both failed to convert, and respectively resulted in New York’s possession at New England’s 25 and 43 yard lines.. However, let us examine the starting position for the Jets before we were relegated to onside kicks- NYJ 32, NYJ 40, and NYJ 25. Rex Ryan wisely chose to use the swift Antonio Cromartie as a kickoff returner for the game, and the strategy paid dividends- as the Jets began these three possessions post-kickoff nearly 13 yards beyond the 20 yard mark set for touchbacks. Strangely, of the three actual kickoff attempts (non-onside), only the opening position of the NYJ 25 resulted in a touchdown- still though, one has to wonder in such a hotly contested game, could we have seen a different result had Gostkowski been kicking from the tee?
The numerical results from this inquiry don’t fully support the basis of the theory; however, we have to realize that sometimes, numbers don’t tell the whole story. The master game-planner in Belichick often designs coverages and defensive schemes for the game before the clock even starts running. In this game of inches, did the absence of his ability to rely on touchbacks alter his efforts to design a gameplan? Did the lack of Stephen Gostkowski’s big kickoffs have just as large an effect on the end result as Brady’s interception, Crumpler’s drop, and Chung’s failed conversion?