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Going Toe-to-Toe
Paul Zimmerman
August 14, 2006
A banged-up vet and a strong-legged rookie line up to succeed New England's most famous foot
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August 14, 2006

Going Toe-to-toe

A banged-up vet and a strong-legged rookie line up to succeed New England's most famous foot

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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 nickname.

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.

Last week 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."

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