YOU THINK we
won't miss Adam Vinatieri?" Tom Brady asked, referring to the free-agency
ride the Patriots kicker took to Indianapolis in March. "We won three Super
Bowls, and each one was by three points."
And so the hunt
was on for Vinatieri's successor.
Three and a half
weeks after Vinatieri left, New England signed Martin Gramatica, 30, a
hard-luck case who in a span of three seasons had gone from one of the NFL's
hottest kickers to a guy who couldn't land a job. In his first four years in
the league, with the Bucs from 1999 through 2002, he ran up an 82.1 field goal
percentage, fourth-best of all time, and made a Pro Bowl. Automatica was his
Then his luck
changed. He played with nagging leg, groin and abdominal injuries, and his
percentage dropped from 82.1% in '02 to 61.5% in '03 to 57.9% in '04, when he
was cut by the Bucs and played out the season with the Colts. No one picked him
up last year. "I tried out for Chicago," he says. "I thought I had
a shot, but they changed their minds."
In April the
Patriots drafted Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round. In
their 46 previous years of drafting, the club never had taken a kicker higher.
At 6'1", 210, he was sturdier than the frail-looking 5'8", 170-pound
Gramatica. The competition was on.
On the last day
of a minicamp, coach Bill Belichick challenged the rookie to make a 45-yarder
at the end of practice. Belichick said he'd cancel wind sprints for the team if
Gostkowski made it. He did. His teammates cheered.
In training camp,
field goal results are being logged at the end of every practice. Gramatica has
been more consistent. "I feel just like I did in my good years," he
said last week, after three practices. Gostkowski has the bigger leg. His
kickoffs are longer but less consistent. Same with his field goals. "I'd
rather miss in practices than in games," he said.
Belichick was asked which kicker was leading the race, a question everybody
knew would not be answered. "Fifty practices. Four games. Four hundred
kicks," he said. "Then we'll know."