Stephen Gostkowski Survived A Trip To Kicker Hell
9:01 AM EDT on September 15, 2020
There's arguably no suite of outdoor conditions more ideally suited for a kicker in a stadium than fall in Colorado, without any fans to yell at you. And yet, new Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski closed out the first discordant, occasionally ugly week of pandemic-era NFL football with a brutal kicking performance, one that he is very lucky did not cost his team their first game.
Gostkowski missed three field goals and an extra point in his first game with the Titans, which is the first time he's missed three field goals in a single game in his 232-game career. He missed from 47 yards in the first quarter, 44 in the second, and 42 in the third, with a missed extra point in the fourth for symmetry's sake. In fairness, one kick was blocked and the extra-point snap was poor. Those missing 10 points seemed for a good chunk of the fourth quarter like they might gift the Broncos an undeserved win, yet Vic Fangio's Dali-esque relationship to linear time and refusal to run the football gave Tennessee just enough daylight to set Gostkowski up for the game-winning 25-yarder. It was less of a redemption than a frantic ass-covering.
The Titans' kicker spot was one of the single most snakebitten position groups in the entire NFL last year. The team went through three kickers who combined to go 8-for-18 on the season. Eight whole field goals! That's 44 percent, easily the worst in the NFL, and the first time a team has failed to hit 60 percent since 2001. You have to go all the way back to 1999's expansion Cleveland Browns to find a team with eight field goals on the board, and the immortal Phil Dawson at least hit two-thirds of his attempts.
Gostkowski is a three-time Super Bowl champion, the Patriots' all-time leader in points, and a two-time All Pro with the league record for consecutive extra points made, but even then, the Titans probably did not reasonably expect him to operate at his peak after he missed all of last season with a hip injury. Falling off an impressive peak is one thing; rendering 35 plays and 186 yards worth of drives, including one from the Titans' own one-yard line, useless is quite another.
He was so bad that Fangio even said after the game that he kept his timeouts in part because he felt confident enough in a fifth Gostkowski miss to roll the dice on producing the right conditions. That's a terrible idea, and it cost the Broncos a chance to steal the win, but investing in Gostkowski being mentally boomed (at one point, he took off his cleat and sock) was at least logically sound. Being a kicker is one of the loneliest jobs in sports. There are no shades of grey, no "little things" they can do to make plays. You either hit the kick or, in Gostowski's case yesterday, you don't.
After the game, Titans coach Mike Vrabel was asked whether his history with Gostkowski helped him trust his kicker in the final moments. The two were teammates in New England for three years; otherwise Tennessee may have been more aggressive in pursuit of a touchdown on their last drive. He said he told Gostkowski after one of his misses—not surprisingly, he couldn't specify which one— that he'd have a chance to win the game. "I just kind of know," he told reporters via video conference. "It's like, it's been red 10 times on roulette so I'm going to bet on black this time. Doesn't work that way."
If Gostkowski didn't have his history as a player or as a pal of Vrabel, or if he somehow missed the 25-yard game-winner, he would probably be out of a job very soon. He might still be, though Vrabel did mention that the kicking problems are "not all on one guy." Technically, that's true, but Gostkowski said it best himself: "It's an easy job when you're doing good, and it's a tough job when you're doing bad."
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