Kickers are a streaky bunch, with even the best being prone to stretches of uncertain accuracy. These rough patches can last for a single game, multiple weeks, or even an entire year. However, Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots has been as predictable and reliable as any kicker in the game, enjoying accuracy above 92% in each of the last three seasons. Chuck Zodda breaks down why he is so successful.
Stephen Gostkowski was drafted in the 4th round of the 2006 NFL Draft, widely regarded as one of the top kicking prospects in years. It is unusual to see kickers drafted that high, as there has only been one kicker drafted in the 4th round or higher since ‒ Alex Henery in the 4th round in 2011. Gostkowski was also tasked with replacing future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri after the veteran kicker left as a free agent to join the Indianapolis Colts. The rookie wasn’t handed the job though, as Martin Gramatica, of the flying Gramaticas, was in training camp as competition. Gostkowski out-kicked the veteran and posted an unspectacular 20 for 26 (76.9%) in his rookie year, but famously he was not called upon to kick in Super Bowl XLII during his sophomore campaign.
This next several seasons saw Gostkowski display stretches of brilliance mixed with the inconsistency that afflicts many young kickers. His 36 for 40 performance in 2008 appeared to be an outlier, as the former Memphis Tiger could not break through the 85% accuracy barrier in the next four seasons. An injury-shortened 2010 year also affected his development, as every leg injury can be career-threatening.
But beginning in 2013, Gostkowski has been nothing short of outstanding. His accuracy over the last three seasons reads like an atlas for the interstate highway system: 93%, 95%, 96%. Gostkowski has also been tremendous from long-distance, dialing up 85.7% accuracy on kicks longer than 50 yards since 2012, while the rest of the league has hit at only a 63.1% rate.
What makes Gostkowski so good from this range? It is a combination of an incredibly quiet approach, nearly-perfect form, and the best follow-through in the NFL.
Everything Is Clicking
Facing the New York Giants in Week 10, Gostkowski lines up from 54 yards out with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter:
Rookie long-snapper Joe Cardona (#49) fires a perfect snap to holder Ryan Allen (#6). Gostkowski is stationary, looking at his spot, ignoring the erupting chaos seven yards away in the trenches. Being a kicker is a slightly surreal experience because there are 20 massive men twenty feet away destroying each other, and your job is to keep looking at the ground and ignore it. Try keeping your head and body as still and silent as possible in that situation.
Unlike many kickers who start their approach by executing a jab step with their eventual plant foot to generate extra momentum, Gostkowski begins his approach with his right foot, moving forward in a smooth and controlled motion. Allen has a clean hold down with a slight tilt away from the kicker, helping to negate any natural hooking motion caused by the swing of a soccer-style kick.
It is in this step that the diagonal approach to the ball is converted into rotational energy. A strong plant and turn will transfer the momentum from the kicker’s body through his foot and into the ball. This requires precision in order to strike the ball properly: a high impact will result in a low trajectory, and a low impact will result in a loss of distance.
Typically, most kickers will plant with the arch directly in line with the ball, but the subtle adjustment Gostkowski makes here means he is likely to strike a little higher on the ball in order to generate extra power from this distance. Gostkowski has one of the best get-ups in the league, often just north of 40 degrees, so he can afford to take a slightly lower trajectory here without any fear of a block. His hips are pointed directly through the target at impact as he strikes the ball with his head looking down at the kick.
The momentum from the swing carries him slightly right, as his body leans toward the center of the field. But it is the next move from Gostkowski that is the biggest key to his success:
He uses what is known as a “skip-step” where his kicking foot skips after landing in order to help ensure he follows through on the kicking motion properly. The skip-step is often a key indicator of where a kick is going. Here, Gostkowski’s skip-step balances him, with his movements pointing directly through the target. Notice that his left foot, initially planted on the outside of the right hash, is now in the middle of the hash as he aims for the center of the uprights.
This second skip takes him all the way to the inside of the left hash, ending up in perfect balance with his center of gravity in sync with his legs. As he completes his follow-through, he is standing tall just inside the left hash:
This is a nearly-perfect kick, sailing just inside the left upright as the eventual game-winner for the Patriots. Gostkowski’s quiet approach, strong plant step, and phenomenal follow-through are all on display here.
But what happens when things get a little out of order?
It’s All In The Hips
Kicks from the right hash are more difficult for many right-footed kickers. The primary reason is that the rotational energy often takes a righty to the side of his kicking leg, meaning he will have to compensate in order to properly transfer his weight directly through a target slightly to his left. If Gostkowski doesn’t do this, the kick is likely to sail right.
Gostkowski now must properly complete the transfer of his forward momentum into torque in order to drill this kick through the uprights. Notice that his hips are still pointing fully outside the target, as it is the eventual rotation that generates much of the force of the kick. But as Gostkowski moves to strike the ball, it is becomes apparent that the timing of his move is off, ever so slightly:
At the point of contact, Gostkowski’s hips are still pointed slightly outside the target area and his leg is moving through the kicking zone. This has the effect of inducing a slight fade on the ball as the force is not imparted directly through the target, but rather at a non-right angle. The closest analogy is when a golfer begins his swing from the outside and works in with his hands, striking the ball in such a way that it results in a slice. The mechanics here are nearly identical.
He is now pointing directly at the center upright, but unfortunately, the ball is away a split-second earlier. This tiny error in timing is what eventually forces the ball to fade to Gostkowski’s right.
Circled in red, the ball initially appears to be on target as it clears the line of scrimmage.
Gostkowski’s weight is falling slightly to the outside as a result of the rotational force generated by his swing. While kickers will always step off a kick angled towards the center of the target area, the natural force of the swing can often result in a slightly off-balance swing as shown here.
Gostkowski’s skip-step makes the eventual direction of the kick clear as well:Whereas the previous example showed Gostkowski skip-stepping directly towards the target, this shows him essentially moving in line, down the inside of the hash. In particular, his weight transfer is slightly off and you can see his momentum contorting his body as he attempts to straighten out.
This was the first missed field goal of the season for Gostkowski, and remains his only miss through Week 12. His accuracy from long-distance remains outstanding over the previous four seasons, and the mechanics displayed in his first kick show the key reasons for that success. While his kick against Buffalo displayed a minor error that likely would not have had an impact at a shorter distance, his mechanics are usually rock-solid, and this is not a long-term concern, especially after his outstanding kick in the snow at the end of the New England-Denver game.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.