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ON FOOTBALL

New battle to kick around

With Vinatieri gone, job open for first time in years

Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski (left) and veteran Martin Gramatica are in the running at Patriots minicamp for Adam Vinatieri’s old job.
Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski (left) and veteran Martin Gramatica are in the running at Patriots minicamp for Adam Vinatieri’s old job. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

FOXBOROUGH -- For the past 10 years, there's been no reason to wander off to where the kickers practice unless you were lost.

After all, Adam Vinatieri was the one player you never worried about.

He was as good at his position as any player in the NFL. The greatest clutch kicker of all time. You didn't need statistics to point that out. You could see it.

``There's no kicker I'd rather have," we heard over and over again.

Only time and the success of rookie Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round pick out of Memphis, or veteran free agent Martin Gramatica will determine whether the loss of Vinatieri to the Indianapolis Colts will go down as one of the biggest personnel blunders in Boston sports history, right up there with the contracts of Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn being submitted too late by the Red Sox, making both free agents, or allowing Roger Clemens to escape to Toronto.

The last time this much attention was paid to the Patriots' kickers was in 1996, when Vinatieri was a rookie free agent, discovered by special teams coach Mike Sweatman while playing for Amsterdam of the World League. Many wondered about the wisdom of Bill Parcells's decision to cut veteran Matt Bahr in favor of the unproven kicker from South Dakota State.

I wrote the story when Bahr was cut loose Aug. 20, 1996. This was about two weeks after Parcells cut Blair Culley, who was the other kicker in camp. When Culley had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked in a 24-7 exhibition loss to Green Bay, he was gone. It was down to the 40-year-old Bahr and the 23-year-old Vinatieri, who was getting a lot of opportunities.

Parcells was fond of Bahr because he had been his kicker for the New York Giants in their glory years, including kicking five field goals to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 15-13, in the 1990 NFC Championship game. Parcells said Bahr was ``better than anyone I've ever seen" when it came to making a big kick.

Sound familiar?

``I would have loved to have him kick for me the whole time I was coaching, and you can have the rest," Parcells said about Bahr the day he cut him. ``I'll put him up against anybody. When he's 65, he'll still go out there and make that kick to win the game for you. I know six years from now he'll still go out there and make that pressure kick for you, which separates him from most of them."

Vinatieri made us forget Bahr.

In Parcells's eyes, Bahr probably had another year left, but the coach made the tough choice. The Patriots were coming off a 6-10 season and the reasons for letting go an aging veteran in favor of potential became apparent.

But that's far different from losing the best ever at the peak of his game. So, we have Gramatica and Gostkowski at minicamp trying to replace a legend. I wish them both luck. Who would want to follow Vinatieri? How can they measure up?

``Not even thinking about Adam," said Gramatica. ``He made big kicks. He's a great kicker. I have enough to think about trying to make the team and convince them I can do the job. I really want to kick here."

On a pristine, late spring day on a lush practice field, it was hard to project Gostkowski, wearing No. 3, hitting the ball into the teeth of a chilly, 20-30-mile-per-hour wind, or Gramatica, who has kicked most often in near-perfect conditions (Tampa Bay), nailing a field goal with no time left on the clock in a raging snowstorm to win a playoff game.

``I've kicked in cold weather before," Gramatica said. ``I'll think about it when I have to think about it."

Not saying they can't do it. There might have been a kicker or two who could have done what Vinatieri did against Oakland in the Snow Bowl or nailed the kicks to win two Super Bowls. But Vinatieri is the one who did it. When he jogged on to the field, you knew if Vinatieri couldn't make the kick, nobody could.

As Colts coach Tony Dungy put it, ``He gives us peace of mind." No situation was too big.

``I love the fact I held for Adam," said Patriots punter Josh Miller. ``With the rookie all I say is, `Hey, Adam and I did it this way.' The ball has a little lean, and I try not to make it as drastic as Adam liked it. Both these guys are good. It's honestly going to come down to whoever puts it through the poles the most.

``They're good. They both have live legs. Steve has a cannon and Martin is like fine wine. So it's going to be interesting."

Yesterday, Gostkowski and Gramatica nailed field goals from 30, 35, 40, and 50 yards in one direction, then the other.

Much like Vinatieri in 1996, expect Gostkowski to get a lot of preseason opportunities. It's tough to cut a fourth-round pick, but it's also difficult to cut a proven veteran such as Gramatica, who appears to be back in form after leg injuries led to him being waived by the Buccaneers in November 2004, and out of football in '05.

Gostkowski, meanwhile, is being seen and not heard, like a lot of rookies. Who knows? Maybe he'll get a chance to utter the same words Vinatieri did the day he found out he won the job.

``I haven't had the opportunity to kick a big field goal yet," Vinatieri said at the time , ``but that will come along sooner or later. Right now every kick is about the same. You have to make it and approach it the same way you always do."

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