- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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Continuing a tradition of producing a special section to reflect the opening of another football season, editors and sports writers at one of Boston's major newspapers gathered in a meeting room one summer day.
The year was 2006, and the New England Patriots were coming off a 10-6 season that ended with a divisional-round playoff loss at Denver.
No definitive theme for the section initially came to the fore. Then, as the ideas started to flow around the room, one began picking up momentum: What about the Patriots' stunning change at kicker?
Adam Vinatieri, arguably the greatest clutch kicker in the NFL and who played a major role in the team's three Super Bowl championships, had unexpectedly signed with the hated Indianapolis Colts as a free agent. The Patriots were gambling on a rookie to take his place.
That change, paired with a bigger-picture look at the growing importance of kickers in the NFL, turned out to be the choice as the theme for the special section.
One reporter was dispatched to Indianapolis to profile Vinatieri in his new home. Another headed to Madison, Miss., to learn more about who was taking Vinatieri's place, Stephen Gostkowski.
That's how significant the Patriots' kicker position was viewed by some at the time, and it's a story that is revisited now because a new chapter has been written: This past Wednesday, Gostkowski was rewarded with a contract extension, covering 2011-14, that averages about $3.5 million per season.
Gostkowski, who is 26, called the deal gratifying, and it should be. Few kickers in the history of the NFL, if any, entered the league in such a tough spot.
Yet Gostkowski has delivered, his 85.1 percent accuracy rate on field goals the highest mark in franchise history, and his strong right leg a valuable weapon in the field-position game with kickoffs.
Getting the extension completed was a relief to him.
"You just never know what's going to happen," he said of contract negotiations. "Stuff like that can be scary sometimes. You're only an injury or a couple of bad games away from things being completely different."
Gostkowski hasn't had too many bad games with the Patriots, although he nearly had an injury scare last week in Atlanta when Falcons cornerback Chevis Jackson was penalized for roughing him on a second-quarter field goal attempt. Although it didn't look like a devastating blow, contact was made with Gostkowski's plant foot. Had the contact been to a different area of the plant leg, who knows what might have happened.
Naturally, a lot has changed for Gostkowski since he arrived in New England as the 118th overall selection in the 2006 draft, the Patriots making him the first kicker picked that year. He has since gotten married, and he and wife Hallie had their first child, son Slayden. Now, with the contract extension, he can think about setting down some roots.
"Me and my family are grateful to the Krafts, Coach Belichick and everyone for the opportunity to be here for a couple more years," he said, adding that he thought it might happen last year but that his patience was rewarded. "I love being a Patriot and didn't really want to go anywhere else."
Still, although acknowledging that it's nice to not have the contract in the back of his mind, Gostkowski said, "The job is not over; it doesn't mean it's time to step back. It's almost a motivation to work harder and get better. You don't always have to be the best, but I want to be the most consistent."
That type of approach won't make him the centerpiece of a newspaper special section, but it has served him well to this point.
In fact, for deserving Gostkowski, things have never been better.
Kickers are important to the Patriots, and Gostkowski's new contract proves it.