Life isn't fair for New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski. From the day he donned on a Patriots uniform, it became impossible to endear himself to the Foxborough faithful. Gostkowski was tasked with filling the shoes of Patriots legend and quite possibly NFL Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri, king of the clutch, and the man responsible for knocking the football between the uprights in some of the most memorable times in Patriots history.
So when Stephen Gostkowski missed the field goal in Week 2 against the New York Jets, in a game decided by the slimmest of margins, everyone rolled their eyes and thought, "There goes Ghost. Disappearing when the Patriots need him the most." Flashbacks to his miss against the Cardinals in 2012, and then two weeks later when he missed two in a row in a one score game against the Bills, and his entire season was written off. Gostkowski will never be as clutch as Vinatieri. Ghost shies away from the pressure and can't deliver. And that's been his whole story.
Ghost wasn't actually supposed to be a football player. His football career should have ended after high school because he couldn't handle the pressure.
Luckily for Gostkowski, he had another outlet to get him into college. Ghost was recruited to Memphis not for his kicking ability, but for his potential on the baseball diamond. As a pitcher in high school, he posted an 16-2 record with a 1.00 ERA and at 6-2, 200 lbs, his prospects as a pitcher were much better than his as a kicker. And for Ghost, baseball is his first love. "If I wanted to go out and just do something one day," Gostkowski said back in his college days at Memphis. "It would probably be baseball." Memphis offered him a scholarship to play baseball and that could have been the end.
While at Memphis, he made the All-Conference Freshman team as a starting pitcher in 2003, but it was all downhill from there. Over his next two seasons, he posted a 2-13 record with an ERA that grew from 3.99 as a freshman to 6.66 as a sophomore and to 7.36 as a junior. According to his baseball coach, Ghost "just lost his confidence and got into a tailspin." He posted solid strike out numbers, but his baseball career was basically over.
But while he was struggling on the diamond, his legend grew on the gridiron.
Confidence, though, is quite fickle. He wasn't supposed to be on the football field in the first place.
After his junior year in high school, he was getting recruited to kick for top southern schools like Ole Miss and Rice. However, his senior year didn't go as planned."I ended up getting benched halfway through my senior high school season," Ghost said. "I lost my job to one of my best friends and all of my football scholarship offers were taken away. I let the pressure of recruiting get to me."
And just like that, his football career should have been over. It's the same Ghost that Patriots fans have learned to understand. He can look so good for so long, but his confidence cracks under pressure and Ghost is done for. Unreliable. Timid. Inconsistent.
While he had to redshirt his freshman season in baseball, his parents convinced him to walk on to the football team and he was the starting kicker in 2002, a year before he touched the baseball field. He was a super star, making the All Conference freshman team (yes, in both sports) and earning a football scholarship for his following seasons in college.
His sophomore year, he set the school record for field goal attempts with 29. He missed ten over the year, three coming in blowout victories, but he showed himself to be streaky. Even though he was responsible for knocking through two field goals in the final minutes against Eli Manning's Cotton Bowl bound Mississippi team in 2003 to extend a four point lead to a two score lead and preserve a narrow upset victory, he missed ten field goals and that could have been the end.
He was four of eight from weeks 5-7, and he finished the final three weeks three of seven. While he didn't miss a game-winner, Ghost still understood the implications. "There is so much more pressure kicking field goals," He said, when comparing kicking to pitching. "You could make all your field goals all year then miss a game-winning one and that's all people will remember." How very poignant.
Ghost shaped up for his final two seasons at Memphis, improving to 20/24 as a junior and 22/25 as a senior, being named First Team All Conference each year. He even kicked the game winning field goal against conference rival Eastern Carolina as a junior. His improvement season after season was enough for the Patriots to take him in the 4th round of the 2006 draft and to replace the living legend of Vinatieri.
His time at Memphis should have been enough, right? The mental olympics that he failed time and time again, the pressure that he fell to at the most important times- as a senior in high school, as a starting pitcher, his streaky play on the football field- should have been a warning to the Patriots. He wasn't going to develop into the clutch player the Patriots needed.
Yet he managed to exceed expectations. His sophomore season, he was named to the All Pro team after leading the league in scoring on the Tom Brady-less Patriots. He earned himself a contract extension in 2010 and signed through 2014 and actually is the 8th highest paid Patriot on the roster per cap percentage. He's currently in the penultimate season of his contract and leads the league in field goal attempt with only one miss on the year.
And still, no one trusts him. He missed one game winning field goal and no one will forget.
He who has hit two game winners in overtime. He who hit the game winner in the playoffs as a rookie against the powerhouse San Diego Chargers. He who hit the game winner in week 1 this season against the Bills (his first career regular season game winner in regulation). He who hit three game tying field goals in his career to force overtime.
We have labeled him "not clutch" because he shanked one kick against the Cardinals.
And not to remove blame from Gostkowski, who should have made that kick (see the above sidebar referring to the missed field goal against the Jets), but he's a pretty good kicker. Like, out of kickers with 100+ field goal attempts he ranks 3rd best all time at 85.7%, just behind an "idiot kicker" and Bears kicker Robbie Gould who Bill Belichick let walk for the sake of keeping Vinatieri (Vinatieri ranks 16th with 82.7%).
If we want to talk about clutchness, we can check that out too. In one score games in the second half (so -7 to +7), Gostkowski has had 36 field goal attempts, nailing 34. That 94.4% rate is the second best since 1999 out of those with 10+ attempts (Sir Adam is 20th with 83.5%).
Or what about when the game is in the final two minutes, or in overtime, and the game is on the line (-3 to tied)? These are the clutch moments that define players. Gostkowski's 87.5% (7/8) ranks him 9th overall out of players with five or more attempts, with his lone transgression coming against the Cardinals (Mr. Clutch is 24th with 79.3%...and apparently there was a kicker named Tim Duncan, which is sweet).
Or how about the playoffs, where the whole season is on the line and where Adam Vinatieri rightfully earned his crown as the most clutch kicker of all time? Gostkowski is 18/20, for 90% and 5th best all time of those with 10+ attempts. Vinatieri is 19th with 82.8%.
And it might seem unfair that everyone will forever compare Gostkowski to Vinatieri and point out how Gostkowski still hasn't won the big one and how he never has any opportunities due to the Patriots offense. It might also be unfair to point out that Vinatieri missed three field goals in two games in the 2003 playoffs, both of which were decided by three points each and his "heroics" in the ends of both games.
But winning forgives all and Vinatieri is without a doubt the best winner at his position the league has ever seen.
And with everything that Gostkowski has done to help this franchise, he'll always unfairly be labeled "unclutch" until he proves otherwise. It's because of the long shadow of Vinatieri that Belichick will have to express his confidence in Gostkowski after every missed kick. It's because Gostkowski knows that even if he makes the rest of his field goal attempts in his entire career, and even if he ranks in the top 10 all time for field goal percentage in every situation, and even if he has the second most touchbacks in the league since he's entered it (behind only the high altitude of Denver's Matt Prater), and even if he rewrites the record books, he won't be able to cast his own shadow.
But all it takes it one kick. One miss can be all that people will remember of your stellar career. And one successful attempt is all it will take for Gostkowski to become a kicker in his own right, one who can be recognized for all the success that he's had on the field. One that won't have his confidence and his clutchness unnecessarily questioned.
Gostkowski only needs one kick. And once that kick comes up, there won't be any more questions.