Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri will soon break the all-time NFL record for made field goals. Last week, he tied Morten Andersen by hitting his 565th career field goal. Maybe Vinatieri will boot himself into sole possession of first place Sunday against the Texans; maybe it’ll take a bit longer. Vinatieri came into the league in 1996, during the Clinton administration’s first term. After more than 22 seasons, what’s another week or two?
I think it’s safe to say that Vinatieri is the greatest kicker in football history. Obviously, he has the volume; he’s got the field goals record in hand, and will almost certainly break the NFL’s career points record by the end of the season too. But points aren’t always the best measure of greatness. Few would argue that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest basketball player ever, even though he’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
Vinatieri, however, can boast more than just longevity. Sure, he’s been consistently great, keeping pace as younger kickers have gotten increasingly accurate over his career. But he’s also been great in pivotal moments. In the kicking world, he’s like if Kareem won Game 6 of the NBA Finals by shoving Bryon Russell to the ground and hitting a skyhook over his defeated body.
He won the Patriots the infamous “Tuck Rule” game in 2002: On a snowy day in which offense was nearly impossible and kicking should have been too, Vinatieri drilled a game-tying kick to force overtime and won the game shortly thereafter. Two weeks later, he drilled a game-winning kick to give the Patriots their first Super Bowl title:
In 2004, Vinatieri became the first player ever to record game-winning scores in two Super Bowls:
We can also make an argument for Vinatieri as the greatest quarterback of all time: His only career passing attempt went for a touchdown. He also scored on his only career two-point conversion attempt when the Bills refused to return to the field in 1998 after the Pats scored a game-winning touchdown with no time remaining on the clock. (Vinatieri’s decision to run for two points instead of kicking an extra point or doing nothing led to what has been called “the baddest beat” in gambling history.)
But I digress. Vinatieri hasn’t won any Super Bowls of late because of his 2006 decision to leave the Patriots for the Colts. That move seemed smart at the time, during the prime of Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis tenure. Somehow, it wasn’t even the halfway point of Vinatieri’s NFL run.
The record Vinatieri will set is a testament to his remarkable career. It also could go down as an unbreakable benchmark. Here are three reasons I believe Vinatieri will stay the NFL’s field goal king for quite some time.
1. Field Goals Should Become Less Frequent
2017 was a banner year for field goals. NFL kickers attempted 1,027 of them, a league record, and made 866, also a record high. They did so largely because offenses are better than ever, and those offenses have put kickers in position to succeed. The league’s top nine seasons in terms of average team yardage per game have all taken place since 2009. The last 11 seasons are the top 11 ever by average leaguewide yards per play. Five of the top six seasons by average touchdowns per team have happened since 2010. Better offenses have put teams in field goal position more often, and that’s resulted in kickers taking—and making—a historic number of field goals.
The increase in offensive efficiency has stemmed in part from an increased leaguewide embrace of analytics. For example, analytics suggest passing is almost always more effective than rushing, so NFL teams have rushed less and passed more. The league’s bottom eight seasons in terms of average rushing attempts per game have all come since 2010; eight of the top nine in terms of passing attempts per game have occurred since 2011.
But coaches’ analytics usage still lags in fourth-down decision-making. Analytics indicate that teams should almost never kick field goals in fourth-and-1 situations. Teams should virtually always go for it on fourth-and-2. Coaches haven’t picked up on this yet. Kickers made 123 field goals last season on fourth downs in which the yardage to gain was 2 yards or fewer. That’s 14 percent of the NFL’s total field goals!
Vinatieri has kicked 92 of his 565 field goals in such situations—16 percent of his career mark. If coaches continue getting hip to analytics, future kickers won’t attempt many of the field goals today’s kickers are making.
2. The Era of the Ancient Kicker Will Die
Remember how I said kickers went 866-for-1027 on field goals last season? That means the league-average field goal percentage was 84.3. Compare that with 1988, when the NFL average was 71.7 percent. Before 1990, there had been just a handful of kickers in history who had gone a full season with a field goal percentage better than 84.3.
Kickers have gotten much, much better at kicking. In Vinatieri’s rookie campaign, only one kicker made 90 percent of his field goal attempts—and that kicker made exactly 90 percent. Meanwhile, 10 kickers last season hit at least 90 percent of their tries. That’s almost a third of the league. Kickers hit 50-yard field goals now at a better clip than they hit 30-yarders in 1970.
Kicking used to be a job for random Europeans or soccer cast-offs, and those kickers were often allowed to keep their jobs until it was hard for them to walk. (The four oldest players in NFL history have been kickers, topping out with George Blanda, who kicked for the Raiders at age 48 in 1975.) Now, kicking has turned into a football science, taught to players who specifically choose to become placekickers from a young age. Even the league’s bad kickers are now pretty good.
This means teams have less tolerance for kickers struggling, even if those kickers have lengthy track records of success. Just look at Dan Bailey, cut by the Cowboys in September despite his being the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. Or take Robbie Gould, the fifth-most accurate kicker of all time, who was cut by the Bears in 2016 despite being the team’s career leader in field goals and points. Here’s the list of the NFL’s most accurate kickers ever—it’s stunning how many of them are unemployed not because they retired, but because teams found superior options.
Vinatieri has been a marvel in that he’s actually kept pace with the league’s dramatic kicking improvements. In his first four years in the league, he made less than 80 percent of his field goals three times (in 1996, 1998, and 1999). Since 2010, he’s finished below 80 percent once, in 2012. Vinatieri went 0-for-6 on kicks of 50-plus yards from 2003 to 2007—that’s five whole years in which he didn’t convert a 50-yarder. He’s gone 20-for-25 on 50-yard tries since 2014.
Maybe Vinatieri’s ability to get better two decades into his career is a sign that old players can prosper at this strange position. He’s 45, and he’s better than he was at 25. I suspect the competition for future kicking spots will be so fierce that great aging kickers will regularly be replaced by great younger ones. Vinatieri may be among the last of the ageless kicking robots.
3. If Somebody Does Break Vinatieri’s Record, You Will Probably Forget I Ever Wrote This
No active kicker is within 100 made field goals of Vinatieri’s total. The closest is Phil Dawson (436), and he’s 43 years old. It seems unlikely that Dawson will stay active long enough to close that gap.
The active player who seems to have the best chance of catching Vinatieri is Stephen Gostkowski—the guy who once replaced Vinatieri on the Patriots more than a decade ago. Gostkowski has 345 made field goals in just 13 seasons. If he keeps up his current pace, Gostkowski will equal Vinatieri in eight years ... presuming Vinatieri never kicks another field goal. If Gostkowski doesn’t catch Vinatieri, well, we may be a full Vinatieri career from anybody coming close.
If it takes 23 years for somebody to break Vinatieri’s record, nobody will call me out for being wrong in this article. Do you realize how liberating that is? Sportswriters are wrong about everything, just about all the time. We go on camera Sunday mornings and say, “The Patriots will definitely win today. I’ll cut off my leg and eat it if the Patriots lose.” Then the Patriots lose, and the Freezing Cold Takes guy tweets at us. Do you think that the Freezing Cold Takes account will exist in 23 years? Do you think Twitter will exist in 23 years? Do you think America will exist in 23 years?
I think Vinatieri is about to set a Kimmy Schmidt–level unbreakable record. And if not, hey: This take will be lost to the floodwaters by the time somebody does.