Living Up To The Vinatieri Standard

NFL Draft prospects taken in the later rounds are rarely asked to step in and start right away. Usually they have time to learn behind a group of veterans who can show them the ropes. At the specialist skill positions there is no group of players to learn behind. The pressure to be ready along with the prospect of having to live up to the standards set by the likes of Adam Vinatieri are no small task. Patriots' rookie PK Stephen Gostkowski understands his situation and is up for the challenge.

A two-sport athlete at Memphis, Stephen Gostkowski said he has been excused from his baseball commitment for the rest of this season so he can focus on getting ready to play for the New England Patriots.

Now maybe a 7-22 career record on the mound and an ERA that's been over 6.00 for the last three years factored into the Tigers' decision to let him go chase an NFL career. None of that matters now, of course. Hanging sliders are a worry more suited for the Red Sox. The Patriots just want to find someone with the leg strength and mental makeup to follow in the footsteps of Adam Vinatieri, probably the most famous kicker in NFL history.

Piece of cake, right?

Well, as daunting as it sounds to be one of two candidates for Vinatieri's old job, Gostkowski said he's ready to take a shot at it.

"You can take it as a challenge, and everybody likes a challenge as athletes," said Gostkowski, a four-year starter for the Tigers who is expected to battle veteran Martin Gramatica in training camp. "It's exciting that a team can have so much respect for a kicker ... Just the (fact) that New England has such good fans to realize a good thing when it comes (along) is exciting for me.

"If I do good, I hope to get the same respect. (But) I'm not trying to replace anybody. I'm just trying to do what I can do and hopefully that will be good enough for New England."

By winning two Super Bowls with last-second kicks and providing the winning margin in a third, Vinatieri had evolved into a full-blown folk hero in New England. His stunning free-agent defection to Indianapolis this off-season has left the Patriots preparing for their first real kicking battle since Vinatieri beat out veteran Matt Bahr in the 1996 training camp.

Coach Bill Belichick said details of the division of labor this summer still have to be worked out.

"In terms of reps and opportunities and that type of thing, a lot of times if you split those evenly right down the middle, the guy with more experience is always going to stay ahead," he said. "The guy with less experience is never really going to be able to catch up."

The Patriots like Gostkowski's range -- as a senior he was perfect in 10 attempts from beyond 40 yards and was 22-of-25 overall. Of course, whoever wins the job won't truly win the hearts of Patriots fans until he shows he can make big kicks in big spots, a la Vinatieri. Ideally, the next kicker also would be able to thrive in the sort of extreme New England weather (snow, gusting wind) that Vinatieri's kicks regularly cut through.

Gramatica spent his first six pro seasons in balmy Tampa Bay, although unlike his old team he did have success in late-season, cold-weather road games. Gostkowski said he has kicked in sub-freezing temperatures in Cincinnati. He also said he has experience with the sort of tricky wind patterns he'll find at Gillette Stadium, calling Memphis' home field, the Liberty Bowl, a "wind gust machine."

"It just swirls in and out," he said. "You've got to block it out before the game starts."

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