The State of the NFL
The whole time that Adam Vinatieri was kicking in New England, Bill Belichick made it a point to explain to anyone who would listen that Vinatieri wasn't "just a kicker"—that he was also a "football player." Which, I think, speaks not only to your point about a kicker's being a necessary evil, but also to the larger one of kickers getting, well, larger. Vinatieri was a scholarship skier coming out of high school and, reliably, once or twice a year, he'd belt some return guy in the chops. Which I think was his way of maintaining his bona fides with the other guys in the locker room.
(I don't know if this is the case in Denver, but in the Belichickian worldview, doing your time as a special-teams maniac is very much the way you make your bones within the organization. It was how linebacker Mike Vrabel first established himself here, and Vrabel's now one of the best and most versatile defensive players in the league. It's also why, against all common sense, Laurence Maroney is still—gulp!—returning kickoffs.)
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a local high-school game and one of the teams had a square-toed, straight-ahead placekicker. It was like wandering onto the runway at Wright-Patterson and seeing a biplane. The earliest kickers I can remember were big old guys for whom kicking was a side gig. Lou Groza was a tackle. Don Chandler was a wideout—or a split end, in those blessed days before the whole sport was devoured by the Jargon Monster—and, of course, Blanda was a quarterback. Kicking became a career in and of itself when the soccer-style kickers came in. The Gogolaks were the first ones I remember, and I've tried to think of a parallel situation in which an athletic specialty was so utterly transformed by the introduction of a new technique. The only ones I can think of come from track and field: Parry O'Brien—and, later, Brian Oldfield—in the shot put, or Dick Fosbury's radical transformation of the high jump. In any event, the introduction of the soccer-style technique seems to me to be the moment at which the kicker became separate in his function from his teammates in general, and I maintain that most NFL players still haven't come fully to terms with the presence of a teammate who has to do this one vital thing in such a strange and European-looking way.
What you say about the pragmatic reasons for Vinatieri's departure from New England is well-taken. His deep kicks—whether for long field goals or kickoffs—had become problematic, and, frankly, not even he expected the kind of offer that Indianapolis threw his way. In addition, the whole episode bespeaks another defining characteristic of the current era in New England—a ruthlessly unsentimental system of evaluating a player's worth. This is not a team that hands out gold watches for long and distinguished service. It hands you a ticket out of town.
One of the things that first bound Tom Brady to Belichick was the fact that the latter runs as close to a pure meritocracy as there is in the league. After what Brady went through at Michigan, where his progress as a starting quarterback was consistently retarded by off-field politics that would have embarrassed Machiavelli, that kind of system was exactly what he was looking for. The flip side, of course, is that the Patriots are unsparing with players asking for more money and those whom the team believes have gone a half-step beyond their prime. Brady first got smacked in the face with this when the Patriots shuffled Lawyer Milloy, the good, tough safety who was Brady's best friend on the team, out of town five days before the season started a few years back. The same thing happened to Ty Law, the cornerback who probably should have been the MVP of the Super Bowl win over St. Louis. It's also part of why receivers David Givens and Deion Branch are both playing elsewhere this season and, of course, it's why Stephen Gostkowski got himself drafted out of Memphis, so he can watch his place-kicks sail wide and his teammates look at him funny.
Play me or trade me,