When the tape recorder-wielding hordes in Glendale, Ariz., finish analyzing Tom Brady's footwear choices and exhaust all means of comparing the 2007 New England Patriots and the 1972 Miami Dolphins, they will inevitably turn to the placekickers. The story lines will be irresistible. The smallish, single-digit-uniform-wearing sidewinder for the New York Giants is Lawrence Tynes, already a flame to the media moth because of his redemptive overtime game-winner against Green Bay just more than a week ago. His counterpart on the Patriots is Stephen Gostkowski, who will attract attention because he isn't Adam Vinatieri.
Tynes and Gostkowski aren't unworthy subjects for the blowhards on Radio Row. The 29-year-old Tynes is, as reporters the world over have discovered, quite a story. He lived in Scotland until age 10. Before making the show, he kicked for the Scottish Claymores of the NFL's now-defunct European league and the CFL's Ottawa Renegades. After a mediocre 2006 season, the Kansas City Chiefs traded him to New York for a last-round draft pick. His brother is serving a 27-year federal prison sentence for trafficking marijuana.
Gostkowski, who turned just 24 on Monday, is the better kicker. I'll get to the evidence in a bit, but for now let's stick with the MSM material. Gostkowski's predecessor, Vinatieri, won Super Bowls for the Patriots with last-second field goals against St. Louis in 2002 and Carolina in 2004, and he provided the victory margin over Philadelphia in 2005. Then the unsentimental Patriots allowed the aging and expensive kicker to sign with rival Indianapolis, where he converted three more Super Bowl field goals and won a record-for-a-kicker fourth ring. When the Colts and Patriots met in the playoffs a year ago, New England coach Bill Belichick sequestered Gostkowski, then a rookie, like a witness in a mob trial.
That a Super Bowl can turn on a foot has always seemed unjust to some fans. In a classic piece in Sports Illustrated more than a quarter-century ago, John Underwood wrote: "It is the one great irony of professional football that magnificent games … are almost often decided by the wrong guys. Decided not by heroic, bloodied men who play themselves to exhaustion and perform breathtaking feats, but by men in clean jerseys. With names you cannot spell, and the remnants of European accents, and slender bodies and mystical ways. Men who cannot be coached, only traded."
It is, I grant, hard to spell Gostkowski, and Tynes can do his mother's rhotic accent. But few NFL kickers are diminutive these days—Gostkowski goes 6-foot-1, 210 pounds; Tynes is 6-1, 202—and most receive at least some coaching. As a former NFL placekicker myself (I love writing that), I'm predisposed to think that what kickers do is breathtaking. Did you see Sebastian Janikowski's 65-yard field-goal attempt in November? It hit the middle of the right upright! How about my ex-Denver Broncos teammate Jason Elam's frantic game-winner in September? Spectacular!
Under routine circumstances, the field goal is compelling because it is the rare moment when the stadium's full focus shifts to an individual. Make it a last-second field goal and the anxiety, chaos, and release are as great as anything we can ask from sports. Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, kickers are more important than ever. They account for nearly half of the points scored in today's NFL, compared to just over a third in the 1970s. They have become so good, making a record 82.5 percent of field-goal attempts this season, that the NFL continues to look for ways to make their jobs more difficult.
Still, most of America won't be rooting for an 11-field-goal, 18-15 Super Bowl. And they aren't likely to get one. Just 12 percent of Super Bowls—five of 41—have been decided by three points or fewer. (The ones involving someone other than Vinatieri were Scott Norwood's "wide right" in Buffalo's 20-19 loss to the Giants in 1991 and Jim O'Brien's toe kick to give the Baltimore Colts a 16-13 victory over Dallas in 1971.) That's a far lower excitement ratio than during the regular season (24 percent) or the playoffs (28.5 percent).
But that math overlooks some important data. The differential in five of the last 10 Super Bowls has been a touchdown or less. While the unbeaten Patriots could march through the Giants like Sherman through Georgia, the teams did play a three-point game in December. And funny things involving kickers do happen in Super Bowls.
So, Gostkowski vs. Tynes. Both have had above-average seasons. Gostkowski was 21-for-24 in the regular season, and 1-for-2 in the Patriots' relatively easy playoff wins over Jacksonville and San Diego. Tynes was 23-for-27 in the regular season and 4-for-6 in the Giants' victories over Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay. Gostkowski has made all 81 of his extra points—which wouldn't be noteworthy but for the fact that Tynes missed two and nearly lost his job. Gostkowski is 1-for-1 on field goals in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime to give the Patriots a tie or lead (a year ago in the playoffs against San Diego). Tynes, a four-year NFL veteran, is 4-for-6 in such situations, which would qualify as borderline clutch.
Two of those attempts, of course, came in subzero Green Bay. Tynes missed wide left from 43 yards with 6:53 to play. Then he missed wide left again with four seconds to go in regulation before nailing the game-winner from 47 yards in overtime. Afterward, I called the Giants' assistant special-teams coach, Thomas McGaughey, who held the same job with the Broncos when I was with the team. T-Mac, as he is known, told me that the first miss was caused by a typically minute technical glitch that, in the repetitive motion of kicking, can be fatal. Tynes' left, plant foot landed too close to the ball and pointed at the right upright instead of down the middle. That meant he needed more time to rotate his hips during the approach. In his haste to catch up, T-Mac says, Tynes overcompensated with his upper body, turning it too quickly and hooking everything left.
The second kick elicited a worldwide wail from Giants fans and the usual "I could have done that" refrain from the masses. It was a terrible kick, a far-left line drive that I indeed could have—and have—executed. But Tynes wasn't entirely to blame, T-Mac says. He slipped. As his plant foot landed next to the ball, it slid forward slightly. That caused his left side to "fly open" in that direction. His right leg, and the ball, followed. You can see it on the video (4:27 mark). Watch how Tynes' left foot and then the rest of his body skip left after the kick. Ideally, everything should point toward the goalposts.
What happened? Tynes may have hesitated slightly because of the high and wide snap. Like batters in baseball, kickers can actually see the ball during their approach—I learned to focus on a spot of pebbled leather on the lower right quarter-panel. The imperceptible delay caused by the poor snap could have messed Tynes up. "It doesn't take much," T-Mac says. "Just a slight hesitation. It could be point-five, point-three seconds—just a flex of the ab muscle, not your normal flow—to just throw everything off."
In the coldly deterministic world of the kicker, though, no one cares about causes, just results. If Tynes had missed the overtime kick and the Giants had lost, he'd probably be looking for work today. But he drilled it, which can't hurt if he faces a similar situation in the Super Bowl. A kicking coach once told me that the only kick that matters is the next one. But experience matters, too. Tynes has that now.
What he doesn't have is Gostkowski's kickoff leg, which over the course of the game could prove more important. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders has argued that kickoff distance is as important as, if not more important than, field-goal percentage. The simple reason: field position. Schatz and his colleagues have determined that every 5 yards of field position is worth about 0.4 points in scoring. Gostkowski's kickoffs traveled 64.5 yards on average this season, and the Patriots' opponents started their drives on their own 27-yard-line. After adjusting for weather, Gostkowski's kickoffs were worth 6.16 points to the team over the season, second-best in the NFL. Tynes' kickoffs averaged 61.8 yards and the Giants' opponents started on their own 31-yard-line. They cost the Giants 1.03 points, 26th in the league. It won't be wise to give Tom Brady and the Patriots' record-setting offense a few extra yards.
Every kicker in the NFL has grade-A sangfroid. If Gostkowski didn't, he couldn't have withstood the pressure of replacing a likely Hall of Famer. If Tynes didn't, he wouldn't have started trotting onto Lambeau Field to attempt the game-winner before his coaches had given him the go-ahead to kick. But the Super Bowl is different. No human can block out that the whole world is watching. Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who kicked in the 2001 game, told me that the biggest risk for Gostkowski and Tynes is that the spectacle and hype will lead them to overkick—that is, to swing harder than normal.
Before his Super Bowl, Stover says he called his friend Craig Hentrich, who punted in three of them for Green Bay and Tennessee. Hentrich offered two pieces of advice. The first was to forget your normal pregame routine—crucial for kickers who need to evaluate field conditions and gauge their range—and warm up whenever possible, because the field becomes a zoo as game-time approaches. The second: Don't trip on the way to the opening kickoff. Stover made two of three field goals in the Ravens' 34-7 rout of the Giants. The miss came on his first attempt because, Stover says, he overkicked.
If Sunday's game comes down to a last-second field goal, Stover says, Gostkowski or Tynes will have to "compartmentalize" it the way successful kickers always do. They will have to treat the kick like any other. I'll be pulling for the Super Bowl to end with one of them leaping into his holder's arms, even if I'm alone with my kicking brethren in feeling that way. After Tynes' adventures in Green Bay, one of my former Broncos teammates sent me a disgusted text message. "Kickers blow," he wrote. "Quote me. I speak for 95 percent of guys in the league."