Throughout their 17-year run to division, conference and Super Bowl championships, there has been the perception the New England Patriots have been as fortunate as talented.
Their fortune has come as a result of good health, the lack of many consequential injuries with the potential to ruin their season. This is not to say Patriots players have not suffered injuries, but they’ve never been numerous enough, or focused enough, to challenge the team’s dominance.
Off to a 4-0 start this season, with a defense that has set a new organization standard of excellence, the Patriots got some unnerving news on Wednesday about a player who has a direct connection to their well-being.
Sources told ESPN kicker Stephen Gostkowski is about to have season-ending surgery on his left hip. The Patriots’ all-time leader in points (1,775) and field goals (374) has been placed on injured reserve.
“He’s meant a lot to this team, and you see a lot of that in the record books,” safety Devin McCourty told ESPN. “But I always speak on how much he means to the locker room. So he’ll definitely be missed throughout the year, having his presence in there.”
There is no question who leads the Patriots. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, is their leader on and off the field. Should the Patriots lose him, it would have a major, if not fatal, impact on their season. He is that important to the efficiency and mojo of the organization.
If you ask us, losing Gostkowski is equally as significant. There is going to be a time during the season when the best Bill Belichick and Brady can do is lead the Pats within a deficit of three or less as the game heads into its final minute. It could be the AFC Championship or Super Bowl.
That’s the time the responsibility would shift to Gostkowski, one of the most reliable kickers in the league, who is 12th on the all-time scoring list. Without him, the odds of the Patriots surviving is now greatly diminished.
There had been warning signs about Gostkowski’s health since the start of the season. He has already missed four extra points. But he’d also been 7-for-8 on field-goal attempts and had flawlessly handled kickoffs. He was tied for second in the NFL with 21 touchbacks.
He’s been the Patriots kicker since 2006 when he took over for Adam Vinatieri, who has continued his Hall of Fame career with the Indianapolis Colts and is now the league’s all-time leading scorer with 2,620 points.
Gostkowski’s spot on the team has rarely been questioned. When’s the last time you read stories about Belichick’s concern or dissatisfaction with him. He’s never given the team reason to doubt him.
Replacing him represents one of the biggest personnel decisions the Patriots are going to make this season. And don’t think they aren’t worried about it. Sometimes it seems there aren’t enough capable kickers to stock the NFL’s 32 teams. Some teams spend the season moving from kicker to kicker looking for someone reliable enough to trust.
The Patriots needed to scourer the second tier of kickers to find a replacement. Rookie punter Jake Bailey could inherit kickoff duties. But he is not a placekicker.
The Patriots brought a number of candidates to camp on Wednesday and have reportedly decided on Mike Nugent, 37, after also considering Kai Forbath, Elliot Fry, Blair Walsh, Matthew Wright, Younghoe Koo and Josh Gable.
Nugent is well-traveled. He’s already been with the Jets, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Bengals, Cowboys, Bears and Raiders. He’s 253-for-311 on field goals in his career.
This will be the first time in nine years they will be without Gostkowski. After eight games in 2010, he was placed on injured reserve with a thigh injury and the team signed Shayne Graham to replace him.
“Whoever the next guy is that comes in here, he doesn’t need to try to be Steve or try to be Adam Vinatieri. He just needs to be himself,” special-teams captain Matthew Slater told ESPN. “He’ll be here for a reason and that reason will be because Coach Belichick thinks he’s going to give us the best chance to help this team win games. We’ll support him. We’ll do what we can to help him adjust.”