FOXBOROUGH — Ask a Patriots fan about kickers and you’re likely to get a smile. The run from current kicker Stephen Gostkowski back through Adam Vinatieri has been as stable and consistent as any in the NFL, leaving New England fans plenty confident should an upcoming playoff game come down to a field goal attempt.
Ask a Chargers fan about kickers and you’re likely to get a grimace. As good as recent signee Michael Badgley has been for the last nine games, he is one of seven kickers to attempt a field goal or extra point for the Chargers the past two seasons, leaving LA fans plenty anxious should an upcoming playoff game come down to a kick.
Go ask a Bears fan about kickers and you might just want to duck, their anger and disappointment still roiling since Cody Parkey’s miss at the end of last weekend cost the favored, home-field Bears a wild-card decision against the Eagles.
Such is the crucible of the NFL playoffs, the time of the football year that can turn a kicker into a legendary hero or a legendary zero. Vinatieri’s snow kick in January 2002 is memorable for all the right reasons, Parkey’s double-doink last Sunday unforgettable for all the wrong ones.
The combination of high stakes and unpredictable conditions pulls kickers from their relative roster anonymity and thrusts them into a spotlight that can either illuminate or burn. But if the viewing public rides that emotion like a roller coaster, the athletes who survive the ride best are the ones who cut a straight path through the middle.
“It’s a very binary position — either it’s perfect or it’s not,” is how Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona put it. “It’s one of those things where you’ve got to have a short memory, to be able to overcome that mental hurdle and go back to your technique.”
That’s the challenge now for someone like Parkey, who answered every question in the immediate aftermath of his miss and re-emerged in public Friday with an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.
Not surprisingly, the young Bears kicker said he had stayed off social media in the interim, ignoring reactions to the kick that plunked off both the upright and the crossbar (and replays later showed it also was tipped at the line of scrimmage). They ranged from cruel to crazy. Even worse was former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who used his ESPN pulpit to bully Parkey as barely a football player, yelling that he didn’t feel sorry for Parkey and dismissing him as someone who doesn’t even “do meetings.”
“The human side of me obviously feels bad for anyone that’s under that kind of scrutiny,” Gostkowski said. “The professional side of me says when you are a kicker in the NFL, you know that’s what you sign up for. You either feel on top of the world or you feel like complete crap. And it doesn’t make it any better, but you know that going into it.
“I don’t like talking about it because it doesn’t make me feel good. I try not to let what other people do affect what I think, good or bad. It’s hard to say anything, I don’t know, about someone else.
“As a human, you feel bad for somebody. As a professional, you know what you’re doing when you get into it.”
Gostkowski has been one of the best professionals ever, anchoring the Patriots kicking game for 13 seasons now, winning two Super Bowls, making four Pro Bowls, connecting on an NFL-record 479 consecutive extra points, kicking a career-long 62-yard field goal just a season ago, and doing it all while also handling kickoff duties and contending with New England’s weather challenges.
Yet as good as he’s been in the regular season, he knows the first thing others bring up is a less-than-stellar playoff record. Gostkowski has missed six kicks in his last seven playoff games.
Again, good or bad, those are what people remember.
Former NFL kicker Lawrence Tynes twice won NFC Championship games for the Giants with overtime field goals, a 47-yarder in frigid Green Bay in January 2008, and a 31-yarder in rainy San Francisco four years later. The Green Bay kick came after Tynes missed twice in the fourth quarter, the second with a terrible effort as time expired. But getting that overtime opportunity changed his story. From reviled to revered with one swing of the leg.
“If I would have missed that last one in Green Bay, maybe I never play again in the NFL,” Tynes told me this week.
He watched what happened to Parkey. He tracked down a number and texted him in support.
“Everyone’s been there if you played a decent amount of time in the NFL, and because it was the playoffs, a national game, only game on TV, it adds to the moment,” Tynes said.
“In reality, I could have been there in Green Bay. One of the greatest lines I’ve heard is, ‘Everyone wants to be a kicker Monday through Saturday, no one wants to be the kicker on Sunday.’ ”
That’s how it goes for one of those NFL jobs that isn’t often talked about, but when it is, it’s usually in a big way. Legendary hero or legendary zero, separated by a kick.