There's never been anyone like him in the history of professional sports. As a matter of fact, there's no sports parallel that even exists anymore. The light-hitting defensive shortstop has gone the way of Alex Rodriguez. The shot-blocking center who couldn't score turned into Shaquille O'Neal. Defensemen in hockey now score more than some forwards.
But the football kicker has remained a cliché. He is not considered an integral part of the game. He's an afterthought. There are football players and then there are kickers. Think of some of the greatest kickers you can name, and the ones you come up with are usually the ones who hung around the longest. The kicker is not the star. This is true for every placekicker in the history of the NFL. All save one: Adam Vinatieri.
There was a time when Vinatieri was just another kicker. In his rookie season, he hit just 77% of his field goals. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl that year, but he was one of 11 on the field who couldn't tackle Desmond Howard during his pivotal kickoff return for a touchdown in a 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
|New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri makes another field goal in the snow at Foxbough (Getty images)|
Even during the magical 2001 season, no one foresaw the legend of Adam Vinatieri. He kicked two overtime game winners that season, but he also missed six field goals and an extra point.
Everything changed during a three week span in that year's playoffs. First, he made one of the toughest kicks in NFL playoff history: a 42-yarder during a snowstorm on a cold New England night that forced overtime against the Raiders. He later kicked a 35-yarder to win the game. Two weeks after that he nailed one of the most clutch kicks in Super Bowl history. His 48-yarder as time expired gave the Patriots their first Super Bowl championship. Two years later Vinatieri nailed another game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Practically overnight, Adam Vinatieri went from just another kicker to Super Bowl hero.
When the Patriots line up against the Colts in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Adam Vinatieri will be kicking for the other team. The missing ingredient for the Colts last year was a clutch kicker. If Vinatieri had been wearing Colts blue and white against the Steelers, it might have been Peyton Manning and the Colts hoisting the Lombadri trophy a few weeks later. Filling a need had never been so obvious nor so simple. The Patriots decided not to pay Vinatieri big money, and opted for a younger, stronger leg. The Colts swooped in and offered Vinatieri exactly what he was looking for.
Last week Vinatieri was the only player to score for the Colts. His five field goals -- including a 51-yarder that hit the crossbar and bounced over -- were one of the key reasons the Colts beat the Ravens 15-6.
So far this postseason, Vinatieri is 8-for-8 on field goals. In his career, he has made 29 of 37 postseason field goal attempts. But one of his playoff misses was the final field goal attempt he had as a Patriot. It came in the Patriots' playoff loss to the Broncos last year. And when the Colts beat the Patriots on his first trip back to New England in Week 9, Vinatieri missed two field goals.
The irony is inescapable in this match-up. In addition to the Belichick mastery of Peyton Manning in the playoffs storyline and the Brady-Manning debate, there's the simple fact that a former New England Super Bowl legend will be lining up on the other side, trying to end this year's playoff run.
In Vinatieri's wake is rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He has had to live with the knowledge that he is replacing a future Hall of Famer all season. He missed six field goals and watched as the Patriots went for it on a league-high 20 fourth downs. During this postseason, Gostkowski is 6-for-6 on field goals, and last week kicked his first game-winning field goal in New England's 24-21 win over the Chargers.
We are reminded again and again that football is a business. Still, it was not easy for Patriots fans to watch Vinatieri walk away. With the exception of Tom Brady (about whom Bill Belichick has said countless times that, "There's no quarterback I'd rather have"), every player on the Patriots is expendable if it means bettering the team. And one year after letting their two best receivers and Future Hall of Fame kicker walk away, the Patriots do indeed appear to be better off. They won one more regular season and one more playoff game than last year. One more win and they'll play in their fourth Super Bowl in six years.
Whether either Vinatieri or Gostkowski is involved in a big play this weekend or not, one thing is for sure: Adam Vinatieri changed the way New England fans view kickers. He's been a part of countless memorable moments for the Patriots, and he won't be soon forgotten. But this weekend, those same fans won't be rooting for Vinatieri. They'll be rooting for the rookie to be as clutch as Vinatieri. And they'll also be hoping that the decision to let Vinatieri go to the Colts doesn't come back to haunt them.
Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"