The State of the NFL
Yeah, to paraphrase Dean Wormer, throwing the ball 35 times instead of pounding mercilessly at a porous defensive line is no way to win a football game, son. Knowing about Tom and Bill mostly what I've learned from you and Halberstam (nice company you're keeping), I can only dream that quarterback and coach had a conversation on Monday that went something like this:
Tom: Why didn't we run the damn ball?!!?
Bill: Shaddup, kid.
Tom: And sign someone who can catch!!!
In any event, here's what I loved about Sunday's game: seven field-goal attempts! That's almost twice the NFL's per-game average of 3.8 attempts in the first nine weeks of the season. But it wasn't a perfect game, and not because ex-Pat Adam Vinatieri missed two chip shots (your phrase; I think 46 yards is far) and his replacement, rookie Stephen Gostkowski, yorked one, too. I was disappointed because your Patriots, down by 10 late in the fourth quarter with a first and goal on the Indy 10, couldn't get into the end zone. A touchdown would have created a three-point differential, setting up a game-tying field goal. And there's nothing better than a last-second kick.
Before my inbox fills with suggestions for where I can stick my size-7 Copa Mundials, let me briefly defend my species. The Garo Yepremian stereotype—little dorks among Real Men—is losing credibility as place-kickers and punters grow to resemble linemen of yesterday and linebackers of today. Fans of the Patriots might well recall how (now ex) Denver punter/kickoff guy Todd Sauerbrun, who sports biceps the size of canned hams, helped extinguish dreams of a fourth ring last January. Good thing I'm writing my book about my brief tenure as an NFL kicker now, because in a few years teams won't stock equipment that fits 5-foot-8, 170-pound former high-school soccer players. Anyway, until the NFL High Commissioner and his Competition Committee Overlords outlaw kicking, tough darts, we're here.
Still, it's not as if the offensive linemen are offering to carry our ball bags. In the Darwinian world of the NFL locker room, kickers are viewed as slightly more useful than ballboys but certainly less useful than the guys who patrol the practice field proffering squirt bottles of Gatorade. Anecdote No. 1: Jogging with a pack of punters and kickers to a distant field on my first day of camp, a Brobdingnagianlineman shouts, only half in jest, "How many kickers do we need?" Anecdote No. 2: A newspaper photo of three Broncos punters practicing dropping the ball (yes, dropping the ball) is posted in the locker room one day. The added headline: "OVERWORKED AND UNDERPAID."
I exaggerate the perception of the kicker as unnecessary evil only slightly. If you've helped the team win and win again, respect is yours. There's little doubt Adam Vinatieri will keep Jan Stenerud company in Canton someday. That there is just one full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame is, I think, absurd. Specialist kickers have been entrenched in the NFL since the 1960s, about a quarter of games are decided by three points or fewer, and even the most kicker-allergic coaches (paging Bill Parcells) have grown to acknowledge the importance of the position. Thirty years ago, NFL kickers converted fewer than 60 percent of field-goal attempts. Have a success rate of less than 80 percent today and you're cold-calling penny stocks. In other words, few aspects of the modern game have improved as dramatically as kicking. And no one has come to symbolize that evolution more than Vinatieri.
Two last-second field goals to win Super Bowls (XXXVI and XXXVIII), a margin-providing boot in another (XXXIX), and your aforementioned playoff blizzard stunner versus Oakland will do that. You asked whether Vinatieri's fellow travelers regard him with awe. Envy is more like it. There isn't a veteran kicker in the NFL who doesn't believe he couldn't have nailed those game-winners, or who wouldn't give his left foot (assuming he kicks with the other one) for the chance. I spent the summer with another arguably Hall-worthy kicker, Jason Elam, he of the record-tying 63-yard field goal. Chatting one day in training camp, Elam made clear he didn't have much to do during the Broncos' two Super Bowl victories in the 1990s and, happy as he was that his team won, wished he had.
I mean to take nothing away from Vinatieri—because attempting a field goal under pressure, and not billion-people-watching pressure, is the most unnerving thing I've done in my life—but he has benefited from opportunity. Stats god Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders punched up some numbers for me. From 1996 through 2005, Elam hit 10 out of 12 "clutch" field-goal attempts, i.e. kicks to tie or win games in the final minute of regulation or in overtime. Vinatieri converted 19 of 24. During that time, he outpaced every other kicker in the league by a full eight clutch attempts. Conclusion: Vinatieri's photo appears next to "kicker" in the dictionary because he got to try and made those three playoff doozies, and also because the Patriots played a lot of close games.
So, why'd New England let him go—to the dreaded Colts no less? Your second question may supply part of the answer. Vinatieri is by no means old for a kicker—he turns 34 next month; Morten Andersen is still smacking 'em at 46; George Blanda kicked until he was 112. But leg mortality can come gradually and then suddenly, a fact of which kickers are acutely aware. My graying 36-year-old pal Elam a) has quit kicking off, b) rubs exotic salves on his thighs, hammies, and calves daily, and c) gets more massages than Hef. New England's number-crunchers may have noticed that Vinatieri hadn't made a field goal of 50 yards or more since 2002 and had been allowed to try only four. His young buck replacement, Gostkowski, must kick in the valley of the shadow of clutch, but he's got leg, launching kickoffs a league-leading average of 69 yards. The Patriots certainly didn't win those big games by living in the past.