Mar. 21, 2006 was a sad day for the Patriots Dynasty.
Adam Vinatieri, he of two Super Bowl-winning kicks and countless other clutch field goals, including what some call the greatest kick in NFL history in the Snow Bowl against the Oakland Raiders, signed with New England's hated rivals the Indianapolis Colts, leaving Patriots fans dazed in a sea of confusion.
How could the Patriots let such a vital member of the team leave, not to mention to the Patriots' direct competition for AFC supremacy?
Sure, the Pats had seen other key contributors to their team depart, but this was a kicker. How much money could it possibly take to keep him in the Silver and Blue? And wouldn't he be worth every penny of it?
Vinatieri was one of the only kickers in the league to be celebrated by the fans and media as a real football player. He was already a New England legend. He had endorsement deals all over the Boston area and he was, in many ways, as much the face of the organization as Tom Brady.
All that changed on a fateful day in March.
But, as always, Bill Belichick had a plan.
Some called taking Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round of the 2006 draft a reach. Sure, he had the strongest leg in the draft, but taking a kicker that high? He might not even beat Martin Gramatica out of training camp.
But things looked good with Gostkowski from his very first minicamp.
Bill Belichick often likes to challenge his players for the reward of getting time off during various camps. Vince Wilfork and Matt Light have been asked to catch punts in exchange for nights off and in the Patriots' first minicamp of 2006, it was Gostkowski's turn.
Mere weeks after being drafted, Belichick gave his new kicker a taste of the kind of pressure that was to come. The Hoodied One lined up a 40-plus-yard kick and told the rookie if he hit it, the team would skip the final conditioning run of minicamp.
Gostkowski nailed the kick, and the rest of Patriots team charged the field, raising the rookie onto their shoulders in celebration.
Thus began the career of Stephen Gostkowski, the man charged with replacing a New England legend.
Gostkowski turned in a solid rookie year in 2006, going 20-for-26 in field goals, including the go ahead and eventual winning field goal in the waning minutes of the 24-21 upset victory over the heavily-favored San Diego Chargers in the AFC Divisional playoff round.
In 2007, far less was required of Gostkowski, as very few of the games were ever close. He went 21-for-24 and hit all his extra point attempts, but he never faced a pressure kick that meant a win or loss for the Pats. He didn't even have a single field-goal attempt in the AFC Championship or Super Bowl.
But in 2008, the pressure has been put back on him. With Matt Cassel struggling to lead the offense to touchdowns in the red zone, Gostkowski has already attempted 14 field goals in just six games, and he has hit 13 of them, most of which the Pats very much needed to maintain any kind of offensive momentum.
But he hasn't only been clutch when it comes to field goals.
What truly makes Gostkowski a Pro Bowl talent is his kickoffs. Currently, he ranks third in touchback percentage in the NFL and has the fourth lowest return yardage average of kickers with over 30 kickoffs.
When you combine his deadly accuracy on field goals and his booming kickoffs, there isn't a better all-around kicker in the NFL.
Meanwhile, old friend Adam Vinatieri has seen a steady decline in both his field-goal percentage and touchbacks since posting solid numbers in 2006, his first with the Colts.
While it was hard to see Vinatieri depart in 2006, clearly the Patriots let him go at the right time without having to overpay for a player whose best years were behind him.
There will always be a special spot in the hearts of Patriots fans for No.4, but Stephen Gostkowski is clearly having a Pro Bowl year. He has delivered on big kicks when he's been called upon to, and his powerful leg has kept dangerous opposing kick returners in check.
Gostkowski has done an admirable job replacing a legend and might just make a legend of himself before his career is done.
Mike Dussault is the Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at BostonSportz.com. His Patriots blog can be viewed here and he can be contacted at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.
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