Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the most consistent kickers in the NFL throughout his career. In his first ten seasons, only twice did he post below 80% accuracy on field goals, with one of those seasons being his rookie campaign in 2006. Yet Gostkowski enters Week 7 of the 2016 season just 9-for-12 on field goals. He has also missed an extra point, despite not missing once on 52 regular season attempts last year, though he did miss a critical extra point in the AFC Championship Game against the Broncos. What’s wrong with Gostkowski? Chuck Zodda examines his recent struggles.
In Gostkowski’s previous three seasons, he missed just eight attempts, never once falling below 91% in accuracy. His long-distance track record was outstanding as well, going 10-for-12, 83%, on field goals longer than 50 yards, a distance where most kickers typically sit in the low-60s. Trying to find misses on tape from this time period was exceedingly difficult because Gostkowski simply did not miss nearly as frequently as the average kicker.
But 2016 has started differently.
There have been a number of questions regarding the reason for Gostkowski’s struggles in 2016. Is he still struggling to get over the missed extra point in the 2015 playoffs? Is the change of strategy on kickoffs, with Gostkowski targeting the right numbers on the goal line, messing with his mechanics and changing his rhythm? Is Gostkowski simply not as good as we thought he was? When examining kickers, the initial cause of a change is less important than how the change impacts a kicker’s performance, and whether the kicker can revert to the mechanics that made him successful earlier.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is whether or not there is a mechanical issue that is affecting Gostkowski, or if this is simply a run of bad luck with a number of near-misses clustered closely together.
Unfortunately for New England Patriots fans, the answer is the former. There are, in fact, two clear mechanical issues that have cropped up, with one likely leading to the other. There is also an oddity related to his initial setup, which differs slightly from what he has shown in prior years, though it is unclear whether or not this is causing any of these problems. His issues are correctable, but require diligence and some work to address.
Location, Location, Location
One of the best ways to examine changes in mechanics is by examining extra points. Most kickers (Dan Bailey’s Traveling Roadshow of Alternating Hash Extra Points Because The Game Is Too Easy For Me notwithstanding) kick from the same location on every extra point, making it easy to pick up on subtle differences from week to week or year to year.
Below is the initial setup of Gostkowski on a 2015 extra point at home against the Miami Dolphins:
Gostkowski lines up with his front foot directly even with the 26-yard line. After examining the bulk of Gostkowski’s extra point attempts facing this direction, this was the standard landmark he worked from as he began his approach.
Now look at his initial position in 2016, again facing Miami at home:
Rather than being right on the 26-yard line, Gostkowski’s front foot is five to six inches behind it. Now, this is not necessarily cause for concern, as Gostkowki has worked from this position consistently this year. So it is unclear whether an altered initial setup is causing problems, but he is working from the same starting point on every kick, meaning it is not an imprecise alignment. But, it is a shift from what he has displayed in prior years, and may be something that factors into some of the problems he sees later on in his mechanics.
While every kicker in the NFL employs soccer-style mechanics, utilizing an angled approach, I typically separate kickers into two categories. There are the Sidewinders, who generate a ton of rotational energy and have a flat swing plane that whips their kicking leg and foot through the zone with a massive amount of torque. Guys who fall into this category would be Steven Hauschka of the Seattle Seahawks and Graham Gano of the Carolina Panthers. Then we have the Straight-Through kickers, who utilize swings with less whipping motion, and typically employ a more vertical swing as they come through the kicking zone. Gostkowski and Bailey are the prototypes for this style.
But there is something odd happening with Gostkowski this year. He is becoming a hybrid of the Sidewinding and Straight-Through styles:
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Here is Gostkowski kicking the extra point against the Dolphins last season. Notice that while he does take an angled approach and transforms this energy into torque around his plant foot, his kicking foot stays in a fairly vertical plane that comes straight through the ball and does not whip around significantly after striking the ball. Everything in this 2015 motion is coming straight through the target, hence the “Straight-Through” name of this style of kicking.
But now let’s examine his 2016 extra point against Miami:
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Look at the longer path his right leg takes to the ball, extending out farther from his body as he comes through the zone and makes contact. Rather than keeping his leg tighter to his body, he extends it out at a greater angle. This produces more torque, and potentially more power, but Gostkowski has never been someone lacking in leg strength. This shift in swing plane, from a more vertically-oriented motion to one that is flatter and produces more torque, is a significant change from the kicker we have seen previously.
Skip to My Lou
Where this really affects Gostkowski is not just in how he comes through the zone, but in his balance. I want you to take a break from reading this to run a test for me. Stand up from your desk, couch, or wherever you are reading this. Stand on your left foot, with your right leg bent at the knee and hanging straight down. Do this for five seconds. Now take your right foot and extend it out to the side six inches. Feel the difference in your balance, as well as the difference muscles that have to fire in your left leg to maintain that balance. The change in Gostkowski’s swing plane has affected the way he balances through his motion.
How do we know this?
Because we can see it as he completes his kick:
In the 2015 extra point, Gostkowski lands on his kicking leg with all of his momentum heading through the target. There is a slight shoulder lean to his right, but his weight is balanced over his landing foot, and his plant leg is directly in line with his landing foot as well, with everything flowing directly through the center of the uprights.
Now look at his 2016 finish:
Gostkowski’s hips have over-rotated due to the additional torque, and he is not square to the target in any way. His momentum is still falling off to his right – the side he has been missing to – and his plant leg is whipping around to that side as well, attempting to balance his body. This is a completely different finish from what Gostkowski has historically displayed. It is unusual to see it from him, as the repetition of his mechanics was one of the reasons he was so consistent.
Time for a Tune-Up?
Gostkowski’s extra point miss against the Cincinnati Bengals is more concerning than what is shown here, though. While Gostkowski’s swing plane has flattened this year, his kick against the Bengals demonstrates a complete breakdown of his mechanics, producing a kick that never had a chance to succeed:
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As I wrote about last year, one of the strongest aspects of Gostkowski’s game was his skip-step and follow through. Here, Gostkowski does not even skip off his plant foot, instead letting it twist in the ground due to the torque, which is something I have never seen from him before in normal conditions. His back side comes all the way through the zone again, likely caused by this drastic change in mechanics, as he falls off to the right, and the kick is hooked well left, as the timing of nearly every piece of his motion is off here.
This is not something you would normally see from a kicker of Gostkowski’s caliber.
It raises the question of whether there is an injury, simply because it seems incredibly unlikely to see a complete failure of mechanics in this way otherwise. While there is nothing definitive to point to that would have caused an injury, this is just incredibly strange to see from a player like this if he were healthy.
The Way Forward
So, now that you are completely terrified Gostkowski is going to fall apart, what is the prognosis?
This is all fixable. Most NFL kickers go through mechanical problems on a regular basis. The past three years for Gostkowski have been the exception, rather than the rule. He has been one of the two best kickers in the league over that time, and if there is anyone out there who can self-diagnose and deal with these issues, it is him. He has shown the ability to build a repeatable motion that is clean, simple, and effective.
During my time kicking, the remedy I would have for a flatter plane was to focus on dragging the toe of my kicking foot directly through the target on my follow-through. This focus would generally fix the other associated issues, as it forced me into good mechanics along the way in order to achieve this goal. Stephen Gostkowski is a far better kicker than I ever was, and likely has his own fixes to the various mechanical oddities that occasionally pop up.
All kickers struggle. For Patriots fans, it has been three years where they have not had to worry about a kicker missing. But as we have seen from every kicker out there, whether an All-Pro at the NFL level or a high school kicker trying to figure things out for the first time, it is the process by which kickers emerge from struggles that we find out who the great ones are. Stephen Gostkowski only made 76.9% of his kicks as a rookie before becoming one of the great NFL kickers. There are some problems he needs to address today, but he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and time to work through these issues. He is too valuable of a weapon to give up on, especially given an incredibly small sample size of struggle after a long period of success.
Follow @ITP_ChuckZ on Twitter. Check out his other work here, an Why Graham Gano missed a last-second FG, an under-appreciated great NFL kicker, and his inquiry into the mechanics of why Dan Carpenter keeps missing FGs.
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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.