Patriots' Slater hoping to achieve new family first By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
Jackie Slater had as close to perfect a career a professional athlete could have. A 20-year tenure in the NFL, all with one team. A retired jersey number. And of course, the greatest honor of them all -- a first-ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The legendary former Rams offensive tackle left the game with his health intact and next to no regrets, save maybe for one. He never won a world championship.
"I think that was one of the biggest things that he kind of missed on his career," said Slater's son, Matthew. "I knew how much that meant to him, because he was a huge team guy."
Matthew Slater isn't going to ever come close to matching the individual accomplishments of his famous father, but the New England Patriots special teams ace and noted jack of all trades will have the opportunity to become the family's first member on a NFL title recipient when the AFC representatives for Super Bowl XLVI take the field at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 5.
Like his son, Jackie Slater reached the NFL's ultimate game in his fourth season, when the then-Los Angeles Rams made it to Super Bowl XIV during the 1979 campaign. The heavy underdogs entered the fourth quarter with an 11-point lead on powerhouse Pittsburgh that day, before the star-studded Steelers scored two unanswered touchdowns in the final 12 minutes to rally for a 31-19 decision.
It would be his first and last time participating in a Super Bowl.
"Sixteen years and never went back," Matthew Slater remarked.
His father's story has given the younger Slater an added appreciation for the moment he'll be experiencing in Indianapolis. But then again, Matthew Slater has never taken much for granted as a football player.
The UCLA graduate was tabbed by the Patriots with the 153rd overall selection in the 2008 draft, hardly a position that would assure a rookie a roster spot and especially so on a team coming off an unprecedented 16-0 regular season and a Super Bowl appearance. Slater not only survived the cut, but the reserve wide receiver earned a regular role as a kick returner and contributor on coverage units and finished his initial year second on the club in special-teams tackles.
"You kind of have that sense of urgency from the day you come into the league, knowing that things are not going to be easy for you," he stated. "You've got to kind of come in and be willing to do dirty work; whatever it takes to stick around. I think a lot of guys on this team have that mentality, and that's why we've had the success that we've had."
Slater has enhanced his own value by taking on additional responsibilities in the years since. The 26-year-old even started three games at safety when an upsurge of injuries struck the Patriots' secondary earlier this season.
"My career has been about [taking] whatever anyone asks of me and then going out there to do it at the best of my ability," he said. "Playing hard and fast and doing whatever it takes to help this team have success."
That versatility, rigorous work ethic and ever-willing attitude hasn't gone unnoticed or unappreciated by Slater's coaches and teammates either, as he was voted New England's special teams captain prior to this 2011 season. Another prestigious honor would come his way a few months later, when he was chosen as the AFC's designated special teams player for the recently-held Pro Bowl.
That last distinction made the Slaters only the fifth father/son combination to be invited to the NFL's annual all-star event, an exclusive list that also contains such famous names as Manning (Archie, Peyton and Eli), Matthews (Clay Jr. and Clay III) and Winslow (Kellen and Kellen II).
Below is a capsule look at the special teams of the New England Patriots, with regular season statistics in parentheses:
Placekicker: Being the successor to Adam Vinatieri, who kicked the Patriots to two of their three Super Bowl victories under head coach Bill Belichick with last-second field goals, isn't the easiest of tasks, but Stephen Gostkowski has handled the challenge well. The 2006 draft choice owns a solid 84.4 percent career success rate on three-point attempts during his six years in New England and has made good on 13-of-15 tries in postseason play. One of only two NFL kickers to compile 500 points over his first four seasons, Gostkowski was a reliable 28-of-33 overall in 2011 and an impressive 10-of-13 from 40 yards out or more.
Punter: Zoltan Mesko doesn't get overworked as the punter on the league's third-highest scoring team, but the Romanian-born lefty has certainly come through when called upon. The second-year pro's 41.5 net average was the best in the AFC this season, while 24 of his 57 kicks landed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He also set a New England record by averaging 46.5 gross yards per boot, breaking a mark that had stood since 1997.
Long-snapper: What had been a sore spot for the Patriots the past two years no longer seems to be concern thanks to the steady showing of rookie Danny Aiken, claimed off waivers from Buffalo during final preseason cuts. The 23-year-old has not had a bad snap in his 18 appearances while chipping in five tackles on special teams.
Punt Returners: The Patriots have a potential game-breaker here in Julian Edelman (10.6 avg.), with the backup slot receiver having averaged a noteworthy 12.6 yards per return over the past two seasons and scored two touchdowns over that span. One of them came from 72 yards out in a rout of Kansas City back in November.
Kickoff Returners: New England hasn't been as dynamic taking back kicks, placing a poor 29th out of 32 teams with a 21.4 average in the regular season. There have been problems during the playoffs as well, with primary returner Danny Woodhead (21.9 avg.) committing a costly fumble that Baltimore converted into a field goal in the AFC Championship.
Special Teams Defense: Slater (14 special teams tackles) is one of a host of standouts in an area where Belichick has always put a heavy emphasis upon. Reserve linebackers Tracy White (12 tackles) and Niko Koutouvides (7 tackles) have both carved out long careers toiling on kickoff and punt coverage teams, with safety Sergio Brown (11 tackles) and starting cornerback Kyle Arrington (11 tackles) also having made their mark on a unit that held opponents to a modest 21.6 yards per kick return (6th overall) and 8.5 on punts.