FOXBORO — Nobody knows what New England Patriots kicker Mike Nugent is going through these days better than Shayne Graham.
Graham was once the replacement of Patriots’ All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The only difference is that Nugent is taking the field at Gillette Stadium nine years after Graham, who still vividly remembers his eight regular-season games with coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots in 2010.
“One thing I distinctly remember under Coach Belichick is the standard is so high that you learn to keep your own standards at the highest,” said Graham, currently serving in his second season as the special teams analyst for the Michigan State football team. “At the NFL level, you have to do that. But it’s just a different feeling because you just don’t accept anything but perfect. And you don’t dwell on things when they aren’t perfect, but you also strive that much harder to attain that.
“It’s just, it’s like when you do something as a little kid and you don’t want to let your father down. It’s kind of like that feeling,” Graham added. “It’s like, ‘Man, not only do I want to do well for myself and my team, but I really don’t want to let my coach down.’ And just knowing the accountability and the standard around there, I think is something that pushes someone to be successful and I think that’s why a lot of guys that come through there are successful.”
Graham was successful himself during his Patriots’ tenure. He was a perfect 12-for-12 during his eight games in New England. He was 1-for-1 from less than 20 yards (19), 5-for-5 from 20-29 yards (25, 25, 26, 28, 29), 5-for-5 from 30-39 yards (30, 31, 34, 36, 38) and 1-for-1 from 40-plus (41).
But there were also times when Belichick opted against sending Graham out to kick field goals he let Gostkowski attempt. Belichick opted out of three 30-plus yard kicks (37, 37, 37), two 40-yard kicks (42, 46) and four 50-plus yard kicks (51, 51, 56, 57) in eight games.
The Patriots now find themselves without the franchise leader in points again. And again, it calls into question how the Patriots will handle kicking situations with Nugent instead of Gostkowski.
During the Patriots’ 33-7 win over the Washington Redskins last Sunday, Belichick opted to follow a familiar script from 2010. Much like he did with Graham during his Patriots’ tenure, Belichick chose not to use Nugent for a 40-yard field goal and instead the Patriots failed on a fourth-down conversion, a direct snap to James White.
While it is surely a small sample size, considering Belichick’s history with Graham, it could be a sign of things to come. And if so, could that outlook hinder a kicker’s confidence? Graham said it’s all part of the position and kickers know the longer kicks are ones that are earned over time.
“I think the way you have to look at that is, you have to keep a positive mindset that, there’s certain decisions that are outside of your control,” Graham said. “Who am I to decide it’s not a better situation to potentially extend the score with a touchdown, or extend the drive by going for it on fourth down? Who am I to question that judgement when the man who is making that decision (Belichick) probably forgets more football in one day than I’ve ever learned in my whole life?
“It’s so hard as a player, that really wants to win, to ever question those types of decisions,” Graham said. “So you never look at as, ‘They don’t have faith in me.’ You look at it as, ‘This is what’s best for the team, so I’m on board.’”
Another aspect to take away from Graham’s tenure is Belichick’s willingness to use a replacement in a high-leverage situation. Belichick trusted Graham on a 38-yard kick against the Green Bay Packers during the Patriots’ 31-27, Week 15 win in 2010. The kick cut the Packers lead to 27-24 as the Patriots rallied for a comeback.
Graham said that his participation, or lack of participation, in high-leverage situations was not something discussed between he and Belichick. Graham also said he never had a set-in-stone conversation based on kick distance or situational kicks that he would be used. Instead, Graham said it was more of a week-to-week decision based on how he performed that week in practice, how he felt in pregame and other factors like the weather or wind at the stadium.
Those conversations are commonplace in the NFL.
“I think in those situations, you want to make every kick. Every kick is a high-impact play,” Graham said. “And, you know, when your number is called, you got 18 feet in between the goal posts and that’s all you’re focused on. It’s not about, ‘We really need this,’ or ‘I hope I don’t miss this.’ It’s about ‘Where is the ball? What’s my routine? And where do I take my spot?’ Then you take your steps and all that stuff becomes unconsciousness because you do it so much in practice.”
Graham noted that while there is some added pressure of being a replacement kicker, mainly due to the obvious reason of not wanting their replacement be next on the team’s agenda, it’s just the reality of the position.
“Really that’s the nature of the beast no matter who you are, or no matter whether you’re replacing someone or whether you just signed a five-year deal,” Graham said. “You see there have been carousels all over the NFL and if you’re not performing at the level you’re expected to perform at, then you’re either looking to get out of a lease, or you’re looking to call a real-estate agent to sell your house. That’s just how it is.
“So, you really want to make sure that every game you’re preparing for, you’re preparing as if it’s not your last game, but your only game,” he added. “So, you don’t see that as ‘I’m a replacement, I’m a fill in.’ You see it as, ‘Right now, I’m one of 32 people in the world (doing the job).’”
Graham said he has worked with Nugent before, dating back to the offseason before his final season in 2015. The two trained together as Nugent is from the Ohio area, where Graham lived for years, having played with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003 to 2009.
“I just have a lot of respect for his work ethic and just his attitude, his confidence, and you know, not every kicker in the NFL is ever perfect, and things don’t always go the way you want, but he’s a guy that I definitely see who can make the best and be prepared for whatever comes for him,” Graham said of Nugent. “I don’t see any reason why he can’t be that guy.”
A Graham-like success in New England is surely what is on the mind of Nugent. That, and his next kick.