Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the top kickers in the NFL over the past five seasons. However, the start to his 2016 campaign has been marred by a higher rate of missed kicks, largely due to inconsistent mechanics. With a missed extra point against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7, the Twitterverse has begun to speculate about whether or not Bill Belichick should examine the possibility of bringing in another kicker. Chuck Zodda looks at the idea and gives his thoughts.
Stephen Gostkowski is not necessarily going to be fine. Let me get that out of the way. There is a chance, however small it may be, that Gostkowski continues for the remainder of the 2016 season making the exact same mistakes that he has for the first seven games. There is also a chance that the situation deteriorates for him and he gets worse as the pressure ramps up and the number of misses continues to grow. Those are both legitimate possibilities, and to deny them is to be uninformed as to the root cause of his recent issues.
They also are not reasons to cut a kicker or any other player. Fear of future problems that have not yet have happened is generally a terrible reason for doing anything, and it is no different here. Beyond that, there are a number of reasons why New England is better off riding out Gostkowski’s early struggles than making a move this week.
Motivation Is Not The Problem
A number of people suggested that Gostkowski’s problem might be solved by bringing in competition to motivate him. This is a two-time All-Pro kicker who has been to the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. Motivation is not his problem, and neither is focus. This is a player who has played at the highest level seen in the NFL over that time, with only Dan Bailey of the Dallas Cowboys being in the same tier as him performance-wise.
This is not a second or third-year player who is struggling to maximize his potential and needs competition to get the most out of their ability. This is someone who has been to the top of the mountain, and is going through a down period, much like every player does at some point in their career. NFL coaches are paid for their ability to identify problems and come up with the correct solution for any given situation. In this case, the problem is not a lack of effort, focus, or motivation. It is a lack of execution from a player who has historically been able to execute at a level significantly better than his peers.
Small Sample Size Makes Kicking Stats Volatile
In 2012 and 2013, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker took the NFL by storm, notching over 90% accuracy in his first two seasons. In particular, his strength on 50+ yard field goals stood out, with Tucker going 10-for-11 on these attempts over that time. He appeared to be one of the brightest young stars in the kicking game.
Yet in 2014 and 2015, Tucker went just 8-for-19 on these kicks.
What did the Ravens do?
They signed Tucker in the offseason to a contract including the largest amount of guaranteed money for a kicker in NFL history.
Kicking stats can be incredibly volatile from year to year due to the small number of kicks that NFL kickers attempt. As I wrote about following the 2014 season, it is one of the primary reasons why a number of teams are better off scouring the waiver wire each year, rather than paying average NFL kickers above-average wages. Yes, I really said that.
But how do you determine who is above-average if kicking stats can be so volatile from year to year?
There is no hard and fast rule of thumb, but if a kicker posts accuracy greater than 90% in two out of three seasons, he is worth investing in because of their ability to provide above-average performance on a regular basis. While one season is often too small of a sample size to provide meaningful data, kickers showing the ability to repeat quality performances multiple times in a small window are worth investing in.
Tucker met this criteria in his first two seasons, and the Ravens have been rewarded for their patience with an 18-for-18 mark this year on field goals, including 4-for-4 on 50+ yard attempts, as well as perfect accuracy on extra points. Gostkowski’s track record is one that warrants the exact same type of patience, especially since we are still talking about less than half a season’s worth of struggles.
You Can Only Carry One
The number of teams carrying three kicking specialists this year is officially zero, as the Buffalo Bills cut kickoff specialist Jordan Gay earlier this year after figuring out that they were wasting a roster spot on a third kicker or punter for much of the past two years. While a number of teams utilize their punter as their kickoff specialist, there are no teams carrying three kickers or punters at this time.
The 53-man roster and 46-man gameday roster necessitate a brutal winnowing of talent, as many NFL teams feel there may be an additional five to ten players they would like to keep in any given year. Beyond the active roster, there is also a 10-man practice squad, which allows teams to keep talent they believe to be developmental in nature, but not necessarily among the best 53 players they can utilize. Between injuries and performance, many teams end up going through 70 to 80 players per season depending on the specifics of a campaign.
Gostkowski is not eligible for the practice squad due to his accrued service time in the league, making that move completely out of the question. This means he has to be on the 53-man active roster. Belichick is smart enough to know that you do not tie up nearly 6% of your active roster on kickers and punters, as there is a far greater likelihood that a team needs an extra cornerback or lineman due to injury or lack of performance. The reality is that unless New England finds someone better than Gostkowski, then he must remain the only kicker on the roster. The Patriots have limited options for stashing him while he works his way out of his funk.
There Is No Better Alternative
Knowing what we know now, let us revisit the idea of bringing in a free agent to compete with Gostkowski. In Gostkowski, the Patriots have a kicker who for the past three years, has been better than every other kicker in the NFL, except one who he was equal to. Kicking stats are notoriously volatile from year to year because of small sample size issues. And there is no realistic way to keep Gostkowski on the roster while paying a third specialist at the same time. What this boils down to is that you do not bring in mid-season competition unless you are comfortable making that change and knowing that who you bring in is going to be better.
Because in the worst-case scenario, additional competition ruins New England’s current kicker, who even at his current level, is effectively one made field goal and extra point away from being a league-average kicker. Anyone the Patriots find on the street has to have that as their baseline, meaning that if New England chooses wrong, they end up worsening their kicking situation by having to make a move, and that move is likely to be bringing in a kicker who would be unable to duplicate Gostkowski’s top-end numbers, because they can only keep one of them due to the roster issues discussed earlier.
Thus, any move the Patriots make at this point in the year is likely to make their immediate kicking situation worse, while at the same time giving up a chance at a rebound to the form that made Gostkowski one of the top kicking talents in the NFL. This is not a situation like what we saw from the Detroit Lions two years ago, where they went through three kickers at the start of their 2014 season, because none of those kickers had a track record within the same stratosphere as Gostkowski’s. This case must take that context into account.
So When Does New England Change Course?
There are two situations in which the Patriots would be justified, and it would make sense, to change plans and move on from Gostkowski. The first is if his performance deteriorates rapidly over the course of this season. If things get to the point where he is missing kicks at such a rate that he is statistically a below-average kicker over an extended period of time, or simply so unreliable that he cannot be trusted in any situation, New England is likely to make a change to shore things up for their playoff run. With Gostkowski being just one kick away from being league-average on both field goals and extra points, this does not mean a continuation of the current situation, due to the reasons mentioned above. But if things do take a turn for the worse, New England must be ready to move on.
The second situation in which the Patriots may change plans is in the offseason, if Gostkowski continues to play as he has for the first seven games of this season. Kicking options are far more plentiful then, and it may make sense for them to explore options and bring in competition at that point due to the expansion of rosters and the additional talent that is available. That, however, is something that is five months away at this point, and while it may be in the back of Bill Belichick’s mind, his focus today is going to be on getting his kicker right so New England can make another deep playoff push.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.