One of the few concerns to come from the Patriots 5-1 start so far this season is the inconsistent kicking of Stephen Gostkowski. Following on from his missed extra point in the AFC Championship, he has missed kicks in four of the six games so far this season. Against Miami, Buffalo and Cleveland he missed a field goal attempt in each of those games and this weekend he missed an extra point against Cincinnati. Having been one of the most reliable kickers for his entire career, save for 2010 when he missed half a season due to injury, the question becomes what should the Patriots do with their struggling kicker?
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Working in Gostkowski’s favor is the fact he has been superb on kickoff duty so far, continually placing the ball in a position that tests the return ability of the opposition. That being said, Paul Perillo from Patriots Football Weekly suggested last month that the change in technique on kickoffs has had a negative impact on his field goal kicking. Now he is being asked to put it higher and place it just short of the goal line on kickoffs to try and force a short return whereas he was previously asked to boom the ball through the back of the end zone and take the touchback at the 20-yard line.
He has shown himself to be capable of putting together a solid run of successful attempts as recently as last year when he did not miss a kick until the tenth game of the season. Of course he bounced back with a game tying kick against Denver in the snow a week later which suggest some level of mental resilience. The other prevalent theory about Gostkowski’s struggles so far is that he is having a hard time shaking his missed extra point in Denver last January. While not the sole reason the Patriots lost that game, his missed kick did have a clear impact on the end of game strategy as they were forced into a two-point conversion attempt.
The thing about kickers is whether the issue is mental or physical, it can be solved this week or it could linger throughout the season. Take a look around the league and you will see that struggles at the kicker position is not something that is unique to the Patriots. Even Tampa Bay, who spent a second round pick on their kicker in the draft are trying to get him through his own issues. A look at the free agency market suggest that the team is not going to find a long term solution who is going to be as reliable and consistent as Gostkowski has been in the past. But if these inconsistencies continue, would the team think twice before sending him out in a critical situation?
If the answer to that question is yes, the team has to at least look elsewhere and consider other options. It is hard to see them carrying two kickers on the roster however, especially with Gostkowski carrying a cap hit of $4.1million according to Pats Cap. If he is released outright, the acceleration of his signing bonus would cost them an extra $250000 on the cap plus whatever they are paying his replacement, which might not fix the issue long term if you sign a veteran such as Robbie Gould. Therefore, the other option if the team does decide they need to give Gostkowski a break is to send him to Injured Reserve with a quad or hamstring injury. If they really wanted to get cute, they could call it a head injury if his struggles are indeed mental. That allows the team to keep him on the roster and give him some time to work through whatever is causing these issues. It also allows for his potential return eight weeks after the move is made if he is deemed good to go. While a kicker might not be worth using the lone return from IR designation, at the moment there is no better option on the table. The three players there right now are Jacoby Brissett, Jonathan Freeny and Greg Scruggs.
At the end of the day, the Patriots will give Gostkowski every chance to get over these early season struggles. It is the least they could do for a guy that came in as a rookie and replaced a guy who had made the biggest kicks in franchise history. The truth is that while Gostkowski has been far from perfect so far, the team could do a lot worse than what he has given them this year.