FOXBOROUGH — In football, there are few better catalysts for armchair psychology than a struggling kicker.
Stephen Gostkowski is currently on the couch. Gostkowski has been nearly automatic for the bulk of his 11-year career but has missed three field goals through five games. That’s a spooky performance by his standards and for those looking for a reason why, his missed extra point in the AFC Championship game seems to be exhibit A.
But is it? CBS analyst Jay Feely, a former NFL kicker, said during last Sunday’s telecast of the Patriots-Browns game that Gostkowski is “not following through and letting the ball drift on him” to the right. That would indicate a mechanical problem.
Gostkowski said Wednesday there are both mental and physical tweaks he can make.
“Even when you play a position like kicking it’s a challenge in both aspects, whether you’re doing good or bad,” he said. “It’s a tough job. You’ve got to be very efficient at it and when you’re not, you’ve just got to figure out a way to get back at it.”
Gostkowski was frustrated but wholly accountable for his slow start.
“I need to play better, I know that,” he said. “Obviously it’s not the product I’m used to putting out there.”
The product he’s used to putting out is superb.
Gostkowski has led the league in field goals for two of the last three seasons. His three misses match his total from 2015 and he hasn’t missed more than three in a season since 2012. He missed only two kicks in 2014 and his long last season was 57 yards.
That’s what makes this season’s numbers — 7 of 10 on field goals — so surprising. Gostkowski has made at least 76 percent of his field goals in each season he’s been in the league. He’s made at least 82 percent in every season except for his rookie year and 2010, when he only played eight games because of a thigh injury.
Gostkowski’s history merited full support from Bill Belichick, who was asked Monday how he planned to get his kicker back on track.
“Stephen’s one of our hardest-working players and I’d say one of the most-respected players on the team because of the way he does work and how team-oriented he is,” Belichick said. “Whatever we’ve asked him to do, whether it be the training things or kickoffs or situations, the amount of field goals where we’ve had multiple holders and snappers over the course of his career. He does a great job of working with those guys and just working to make the operation better and more consistent. We’ll keep doing that just like we do with everything else in our program.”
By Football Outsiders’ analysis, which factors in distance and environmental factors such as weather and altitude, the New England field goal/extra point unit has cost the team more than all but four others in the league. Only Tampa Bay’s Roberto Aguayo, the Browns’ kicker committee, Minnesota’s Blair Walsh, and Chicago’s Connor Barth have been worse.
The Patriots get above-average value out of their special teams as a whole, and league-best value from kickoffs, where Gostkowski has been phenomenal.
Using his strength and accuracy to place kickoffs close to the goal line, the Patriots have taken advantage of the NFL’s new touchback rule and pinned opponents deep. Whether that has changed Gostkowski’s mechanics or not, his misses have gone consistently to the right.
As the Globe’s Ben Volin pointed out, Gostkowski’s missed extra point in the AFC Championship game last season was wide right, as was the 48-yarder he missed against the Bills in Week 4, the 39-yarder against the Dolphins in Week 2, and the 30-yarder against the Panthers in the preseason. Gostkowski missed a 52-yarder wide left against the Panthers as well, the only one of his last six misses that has gone in that direction.
Gostkowski’s misses haven’t correlated with distance or with high-pressure situations. Gostkowski was 3 for 3 on field goals in the Arizona game, the Patriots’ most competitive this season. Yet Gostkowski said it would be too simplistic to say that his aim has simply been off.
“There’s so many factors that could go into that that it’s not always cut and dry, ‘Well, aim more left.’ It’s not always that easy,” Gostkowski said. “A lot of people don’t really understand or care to about my position. Anything you say comes off as an excuse. I don’t try to make excuses.”
No excuses, but small, experimental changes. An elite kicker is a luxury easily taken for granted, but Gostkowski has taken it upon himself to ensure the Patriots don’t find that out the hard way.
“Part of the job is figuring out adjustments,” Gostkowski said. “Things don’t always go smoothly as you plan for them to go, so that’s just part of the job. People have to block for you and snap and hold, and other than that it’s up to you to figure out how to do it. Sometimes it’s easier than others, sometimes it’s really easy, sometimes it’s not.”