YOU THINK wewon't miss Adam Vinatieri?" Tom Brady asked, referring to the free-agencyride the Patriots kicker took to Indianapolis in March. "We won three SuperBowls, and each one was by three points."
And so the huntwas on for Vinatieri's successor.
Three and a halfweeks after Vinatieri left, New England signed Martin Gramatica, 30, ahard-luck case who in a span of three seasons had gone from one of the NFL'shottest kickers to a guy who couldn't land a job. In his first four years inthe league, with the Bucs from 1999 through 2002, he ran up an 82.1 field goalpercentage, fourth-best of all time, and made a Pro Bowl. Automatica was hisnickname.
Then his luckchanged. He played with nagging leg, groin and abdominal injuries, and hispercentage dropped from 82.1% in '02 to 61.5% in '03 to 57.9% in '04, when hewas cut by the Bucs and played out the season with the Colts. No one picked himup last year. "I tried out for Chicago," he says. "I thought I hada shot, but they changed their minds."
In April thePatriots drafted Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round. Intheir 46 previous years of drafting, the club never had taken a kicker higher.At 6'1", 210, he was sturdier than the frail-looking 5'8", 170-poundGramatica. The competition was on.
On the last dayof a minicamp, coach Bill Belichick challenged the rookie to make a 45-yarderat the end of practice. Belichick said he'd cancel wind sprints for the team ifGostkowski made it. He did. His teammates cheered.
In training camp,field goal results are being logged at the end of every practice. Gramatica hasbeen more consistent. "I feel just like I did in my good years," hesaid last week, after three practices. Gostkowski has the bigger leg. Hiskickoffs are longer but less consistent. Same with his field goals. "I'drather miss in practices than in games," he said.
Last weekBelichick was asked which kicker was leading the race, a question everybodyknew would not be answered. "Fifty practices. Four games. Four hundredkicks," he said. "Then we'll know."