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Patriots Kicking Conundrum: Fatal Flaw? Not So Fast

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Between a sputtering offense, Tom Brady's contract, homefield advantage and more, there's hardly enough time to worry about the kicking situation in New England.

All of the above are fixable, to a degree, but all bets are seemingly off when it comes to who's lining up for field goals and extra points from here on out. Following the release of Kai Forbath after one ill-fated game on Sunday, the Patriots will be in search of their fifth — count them, fifth — kicker of the 2019 season.

Consider that since Bill Belichick took over as coach of the Patriots in 2000, exactly five players had attempted a field goal or extra point for New England through the 2018 season.

Even that total is misleading. Doug Flutie famously attempted a drop kick on a single PAT in the regular season finale in 2005, while Wes Welker filled in for an injured Stephen Gostkowski on a single PAT in a 34-14 loss to the Browns in 2010.

Shayne Graham came on after that Browns game, relegating Welker to his duties on offense and special teams, finishing out the season a perfect 12 for 12 on field goals before Gostkowski returned in 2011.

For all intents and purposes, Gostkowski and his predecessor, Adam Vinatieri, have been the only full-time kickers in Foxboro for a quarter century.

Now living in a kicking dystopia, the results have been discouraging for New England. Between Gostkowski — who went on IR after Week 4 — Mike Nugent, Nick Folk and Forbath, the Patriots rank a middle-of-the-road 18th in the NFL in field goal percentage (76.9) and 31st in extra point percentage (83.3). New England kickers are tied for the league lead in missed PATs, at six, with — wait for it — Vinatieri and the Colts.

The Patriots are one of just two teams in the league that haven't attempted a field goal from 50 yards out, with the 2-10 New York Giants being the other. Needless to say, it's not because the Patriots are getting into the red zone with ease.

All of this reeks of a fatal flaw destined to expose New England come the postseason, right?

About that.

Having a revolving door at kicker is certainly less than ideal, and will only ratchet up the degree of difficulty facing a Patriots team that's starved for points. But how has having the top kicker in the league worked out this season for the Jaguars, who are 4-8 despite Josh Lambo making his field goals at a 96.2% rate?

OK, so the 10-2 Ravens aren't exactly complaining with the performance of Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, who's currently second in field goal percentage for 2019. This season, Tucker has made 95.7% of his field goals, over 5 points above his career average.

Look around at the top 10 kickers in the league this season in terms of field goal percentage, and you'll find that only five of them are on teams currently in possession of a playoff spot. Just six of the top 16 kickers in the NFL would be in the postseason if it began today.

The kicking game has, of course, wreaked havoc on would-be Super Bowl contenders in the past.

It surprised no one last season when Cody Parkey, who finished 30th in the league in field goal percentage in 2018, had a kick partially blocked and ultimately hit off two posts before falling short in the end zone for the Bears with 0:10 left in a 16-15 wild-card loss to the Eagles. Scott Norwood, who missed a 47-yard field goal wide right with 0:08 left in Super Bowl XXV for the Bills in a 20-19 loss, was 23rd in a 28-team NFL in field goal percentage that season.

There are far more examples of teams winning championships with middling-to-mediocre kickers, however, than teams whose dreams were dashed.

Since the NFL expanded to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, only twice has the kicker who led the league in field goal percentage kicked for the Super Bowl champion: Vinatieri for the Patriots in 2004 and Chris Biniol for the Cowboys in 1995. The Super Bowl-champion kicker was second in the league twice — including Gostkowski for the 2014 Patriots.

The top kicker in the league has kicked for a playoff team 16 times out of 29 since 1990, or 55%. The Super Bowl-winning kicker has been in the top five in field goal percentage six times, while the Super Bowl-losing kicker has finished in the top five four times. On average, the kicker for the Super Bowl winner has finished 13th in the league in field goal percentage and the kicker for the runner-up has finished 14th.

The only season in which the top two kickers in the league squared off in the Super Bowl was in 2013, when Matt Prater's Broncos (No. 1 in field goal percentage) fell to Stephen Hauschka's Seahawks (No. 2). That's also the only season out of 29 in which two teams with top-five kickers both reached the Super Bowl (2006 was the only other season even close, when Vinatieri's fourth-ranked Colts beat Robbie Gould's sixth-ranked Bears).

Having Jason Hanson go 21 for 22 on field goal attempts — a league-leading 95.5% — in 2008 worked out wonderfully for the Lions, who became the first team in NFL history to finish 0-16. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that year with Jeff Reed, who finished 14th in field goal percentage.

The next three Super Bowl champions — the Saints, Packers and Giants — had kickers who finished 24th, 23rd and 22nd, respectively in field goal percentage. The Super Bowl losers during said stretch weren’t much better, with the Colts, Steelers and Patriots finishing 21st, 25th and 12th.

Gostkowksi, the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history, has been slightly below average in each of New England’s last two Super Bowl wins, finishing 19th in the NFL in field goal percentage in 2016 and 17th last season. Vinatieri, who missed two kicks in Super Bowl XXXVIII, was 24th in the league in field goal percentage in 2003.

These Patriots, despite being 10-2, have many shortcomings at the moment. The kicking game is most certainly among them, but history tells us it likely won't be the deciding factor for a seventh Super Bowl title.

And if it is, the greater New England area owes Gostkowski one giant apology.

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