New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Nick Folk lifted the Patriots over the Cardinals with a 50-yard, time-expiring field goal in 2020. It was the teams' third straight matchup decided by a late FG try. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

  • Three, by three.

    First, Stephen Gostkowski looks for his fifth field goal of the 2012 home opener, having hit from as far out as 53 yards on this mid-September afternoon in Foxborough. The Patriots trail by two points with six seconds left. From the middle of the field, 42 yards away from the goal post, he sweeps his right leg forward and pulls the ball. It starts left and continues that way.

    Arizona survives, 20-18.

    Four years later, in the 2016 Sunday night opener marking Jimmy Garoppolo’s starting debut in Glendale, Ariz., the kicking shoe is on the other foot. Minutes after Gostkowski made a 23-yarder for a two-point lead, it’s Chandler Catanzaro’s turn with 41 seconds to go. His try is from 47 yards out. The snap comes back low and inside the right hashmark, as Catanzaro approaches. He contacts the ball and it hooks. No chance. Well wide, to the left. Again.

    Patriots hold on, 23-21.

    Most recently, the series returns to a mostly empty Gillette Stadium in November of 2020. A little less than two minutes ago, Zane Gonzalez pushed a go-ahead try to the right. Now, there’s barely time for one more snap in a regulation tie. The clock is at 0:03. Nick Folk can win it with a 50-yarder. He connects from the left hash mark and drives the ball on a straight line only slightly off-center as time expires. Easily long enough, it stays true.

    Patriots celebrate, 20-17.

    Three games — a fifth of the Patriots-Cardinals series history — all come down to three pointers. The total margin is 7 points. Narrow as it is on the scoreboard, the difference between make or miss, win or loss, is much slimmer.

    In a game of inches, far less can change the outcome of a kick. And thereby the outcome of the game itself.

    Take any controllable aspect of the operation involving long snapper, holder and punter. A snap off — high, low, inside, outside — by this much. A half-rotation less or more that leaves the laces of the ball facing backward. A holder missing his mark on the spot by that much.

    “An inch is a lot,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord says. “If you’re off an inch, now you’re talking about, ‘I’m gonna wrap the ball, wrap around the ball with my foot if its too far inside. If it’s too far in front, like an inch, now I’m undercutting the ball.’

    “So the spot of the football when you’re actually going back to the holding mechanics of it is very important.”

    Important enough, Achord emphasizes, that extra repetitions off to the side are allocated in practices. No snaps or kicks necessary. Just underhand ball tosses to the holder, while the kicker goes through his motions.

    The drills have become especially valuable in recent weeks, as Folk has acclimated himself to a new holder. A back injury displaced punter Jake Bailey from the role, which is now handled by replacement Michael Palardy.

    Although Folk only worked with Bailey in games between his signing with the Pats three years ago and the start of this past November, he has ample experience breaking in holders during his 15-year NFL career.

    With the Cowboys, Folk cycled through several holders. After enjoying early success (including a Pro Bowl invitation as a rookie) with backup quarterback Brad Johnson holding, Folk experienced a disconnect with punter Mat McBriar in 2009. Eight misses overall led the Cowboys to switch to quarterback Tony Romo.

    During Folk’s long tenure with the Jets, punters and, thus, holders changed frequently. Among his holders in New York was a third quarterback, Mark Brunell. He then moved on to Tampa Bay in 2017 and the Alliance of American Football briefly in the spring of 2019.

    Almost instantly upon signing with the Pats later that fall, Folk formed a chemistry with Cardona and Bailey, stringing together 64 consecutive field goals made inside of 50 yards.

    “Most guys are pretty good,” Folk said Tuesday afternoon, as he collected belongings from his locker before leaving for a nearby charity appearance. “The lucky part of, I guess you could say, my time in the NFL is most holders are the punters. We get to work with them all day. The same goes for the snappers.

    “Back in the day, when you have a quarterback doing (the job) it’s a little different. I’ve had that situation before…it can be tougher. But you show them how you like it (and) what needs to happen. I’ve (also) picked up a lot of things along the way from different coaches, different holders.”

    Some of what Folk’s gathered are more drills.

    “I tell everyone, ‘Look, I’m not trying to teach you how to hold,’” he says. “Everyone’s unique in their own way, how they want to do it. But these are drills that I’ve seen work for young guys and after watching them do it, I feel like it’s a good thing to practice. You just kind of pick up things over time.”

    Regarding the actual placement, Folk’s eyes are fixed on the ball, like a baseball batter tracking a pitch, rather than a spot on the ground.

    “There’s two kind of schools of thought on that,” he explains, pulling a half-empty bottle of water from his locker. “One is you’re looking at the holder’s left hand, and as soon as that moves to catch the ball that’s when you go.

    “But my soccer background is that I’m going to use that and follow the ball. The thought is, how I think about it, as the ball is being caught by the holder…”

    Folk is now tilting the bottle in his right hand, pointing to its sweet spot, just below the water line, with his left index finger.

    “As he’s moving (the ball),” he says, “I can find the spot on the ball I want to hit before it’s on the ground. Whereas if you’re looking at the spot, you’re not finding the ball until it’s down. That’s how I think about it. But that’s more my soccer background that I want to follow the ball.”

    He lifts a black sweatshirt off a hook and pulls it over his head, then dons a black ball cap.

    “I watch the snap all the way to the catch to my part,” Folk adds, zipping up his backpack. “The best way to describe it (is) like a putt in golf. If the ball is sitting there for you and then you start your backswing and the ball moves even a little bit, you’re not going to make the putt, no matter how close you are.

    “It’s the same thing. As specialists, you’re expecting the ball to be, I’d say, like the tip of the football in a quarter-sized spot. You expect it to be there and that’s what everything you’ve done, your routine and your measurements for that kick are (from) that one spot.”

    Folk grabs his keys, closes the drawer and shuts the doors of his locker, then pivots away.

    “There’s a lot that goes into it that people don’t realize.”

    A lot, indeed, deciding differentials as little as two or three points.

  • Palardy Follow-up

    Palardy

    After Michael Palardy suffered a torn left ACL at the end of this fake punt run, he stayed in to kick four times in last season’s finale vs. the Pats. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Following Folk’s exit, Palardy entered the locker room to change and wrap up his work day.

    In town for now on temporary duty, he’s staying at a nearby a hotel, apart from his wife and three children being schooled in the Charlotte, N.C. area. They settled there during the journeyman Palardy’s most stable NFL stint as a member of the Panthers.

    His family remained in North Carolina last year even when Palardy returned to his native South Florida to punt for the Dolphins, reflecting the tenuous reality for someone in his role. In a league where few enjoy any measure of job security, specialists are afforded less.

    Palardy lasted one season with Miami, ending in a win over the Patriots.

    Remarkably, he played most of that game with a torn left ACL. Palardy’s knee injury occurred on a fake punt attempt that netted a first down from a personal foul by Brandon Bolden late in the first quarter. 

    Palardy says he suffered the torn ligament while going into a slide bracing for Bolden’s hit. He remained active and punted four times in the final three quarters, netting a 47.3 average, and held for two field goals.

    With no injury report to follow the season finale, Palardy’s need for surgery went unreported at the time. After the operation, the second of his career, he rejoined his wife and kids to rehab, work out and “wait for a call.”

    Since taking it from Foxborough, Palardy’s done what Achord describes as “a great job.”

  • Foursome Playing Through

    Prater

    Matt Prater’s hip injury led to the Cardinals using three other place kickers in 2022. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

    While Palardy, as you know, is the second punter to appear for New England, Folk is one of three Patriots to kick off this season.

    The job belongs to Bailey when healthy. But after Jake’s injury, Folk kicked off in back-to-back games, including the 33-26 loss at Minnesota, where Kene Nwangwu returned one for 97 yards and a touchdown.

    The following week, the Pats elevated Travis Vizcaino from the practice squad for their game against Buffalo.

    It marked Vizcaino’s second game appearance in 2022. The first was as one of four Cardinals’ kickers, among a league-high 77 players the team has used this season. 

    Vizcaino was signed off the Patriots practice squad for a Week 10 win over the Rams in Los Angeles. He made field goals of 36 and 46 yards and converted three extra points. Let go after the game, Travis returned to New England.

    Matt Prater, in his second year in Arizona, 16th season overall and best known as a Bronco and Lion, has missed four games due to a hip injury. When able, as the third-leading scorer among active players with 1,634 career points, Prater’s converted 10-of-11 field goal attempts.

    Besides Vizcaino, former Jet Matt Ammendola (2-for-3 FG) and ex-Colt Ricardo Blankenship (2-for-3 FG) filled in for Prater.

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. He’ll call Monday’s game in Arizona alongside Scott Zolak. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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