This season might be the final chapter of Adam Vinatieri’s storied football career, and halfway through it, he’s gone from GOAT to scapegoat. The Indianapolis Colts are 5-3 but would likely be 7-1 if Vinatieri and the Colts kicking unit was not dropping (shanking?) the ball.
On Sunday, the Colts were down 26-24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 71 seconds left when they called on Vinatieri. With quarterback Jacoby Brissett out of the game with a knee injury, backup Brian Hoyer led a drive to set Vinatieri up for a 43-yard attempt. He missed, though calling it a miss is generous. The kick went so wide left that it went wide of the kicking net and into a crowd of Steelers fans.
The miss ended Indy’s chances of winning the game. Vinatieri’s foot hit the turf a few inches before he hit the kick, though that was not entirely Vinatieri’s fault. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez took the snap and held the ball with the laces facing Vinatieri, which is famously a no-no. Pat McAfee, a former Colts punter who used to hold for Vinatieri in Indianapolis, explained what he thought went wrong on Twitter.
It wasn’t the first kick Vinatieri botched on Sunday. Earlier in the game, the Steelers blocked a Vinatieri extra point because he launched it at a low trajectory (short kicks are extremely difficult to block because kickers can boot the ball far above defenders, so letting one hang low is kicking malpractice).
“No matter what I gotta make them all,” Vinatieri told reporters after the game.
The misses are not an aberration but the return of some early-season struggles. Playing against the Chargers in Los Angeles in Week 1 (when it was a balmy 77 degrees), Vinatieri missed a 46-yarder before halftime, a 29-yarder in the fourth quarter, and an extra point—seven points in all—in a game that the Colts lost in overtime, 30-24. If the Colts had got any of those points they likely would have won in regulation. The following week, Vinatieri missed two more extra-point kicks in a 19-17 win over the Titans. After that game, Vinatieri implied to reporters he would retire the next day. It was not surprising. Vinatieri is the oldest player in the league and will turn 47 in December. He began his career at 23, so he has been playing in the NFL for half his life. He has scored more points than any player in NFL history, and has the most field goals made of all time and the second-most extra points. Vinatieri won three Super Bowls with the Patriots with each win coming by three points, and then won another with the Colts in 2006. But Vinatieri did not retire. Colts head coach Frank Reich firmly stuck by Vinatieri after Week 2.
“Adam is our kicker,” Reich told reporters after Week 2. “We have zero concern. He’s not only our kicker, he’s a key leader on our team.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay was even bolder, citing Vinatieri’s bloodline to The Athletic’s Zak Keefer (the entire Athletic passage is worth quoting because of Keefer’s parenthetical contextualizing Irsay’s quote).
“This is a guy whose great-great-great-grandfather survived Custer’s Last Stand!” Irsay bellowed. “This is a man of very tough cloth.” (For those curious, Felix Vinatieri was Lt. Col. George Custer’s bandmaster and survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn slaughter in Montana only because he was not near the battle.)
Over the next month, from Week 3 to Week 7, Vinatieri made 11 of 11 extra points and seven of eight field goals. His lone miss was from 57 yards. The Colts seemed wise for sticking by Vinatieri’s side, especially as other teams like the Patriots, Jets, and Bears have had kicking problems ranging from concerning to cartoonish. But the last two weeks Vinatieri’s issues have resurfaced. Last week against the Broncos, Vinatieri missed a 45-yarder and an extra point. The misses were forgotten in a 15-13 victory where Vinatieri made a 55-yarder before halftime and a 51-yarder with less than 30 seconds left to win the game. But if Vinatieri had made the extra point, the score when he lined up for his game-winner would have been 13-13 instead of 13-12 Broncos. Vinatieri climbed out of the hole he dug last week, but another missed extra point and a missed game-winner on Sunday show his lack of reliability has become a liability.
Vinatieri is now 73.7 percent on extra points this season, 27th among 28 qualifying kickers (the only person behind him is Steven Gostkowski, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 4). Before this season, Vinatieri’s career extra point percentage was 97.9 percent. Even if we only count the four seasons before this year when extra points were moved back 13 yards, Vinatieri made 142 of 150 extra points, or 94.7 percent. The league average on extra points from the increased distance has never dropped below 93.6 percent, and it sat at 94.6 percent entering Week 9. As Keefer noted in his piece, it’s akin to Michael Jordan forgetting how to make layups or Tiger Woods missing 6-inch putts. Yet Vinatieri is not Indy’s only issue. Reich said Brissett’s injury was (this is a quote) “MCL-ish” and that Brissett did not re-enter because “I didn’t think Jacoby Brissett was good enough to go back in.” Brissett spent roughly five minutes in the sideline blue tent and then was seen jogging on the sideline after the injury. Their offensive line, famously a strength, has been a problem the last two weeks. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt had a strong day on Sunday against right tackle Braden Smith. Center Ryan Kelly left the game with a stinger, the first time this year a Colts offensive lineman has missed a snap. Rookie receiver Parris Campbell (who was born after Vinatieri’s rookie season) fumbled twice on Sunday, highlighting his ball-security issues. The Colts have had some unexpected contributors rise—like receiver Zach Pascal, who had five catches for 76 yards and a touchdown—but their offense is far from a finished product.
The Colts get a one week reprieve next week when they host the Dolphins, who picked up their first win of the season but are still likely to be double-digit underdogs. That is likely true regardless of whether Brissett or Hoyer starts at quarterback. That Brissett re-entering the game was even a possibility suggests he could play next week against Miami, though he may not need to. Hoyer completed 17 of 26 passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns, though he did throw a pick-six and lost a fumble. If anyone can make Hoyer serviceable it is backup QB guru Frank Reich, who came to the Colts after serving as offensive coordinator during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run with backup Nick Foles. He led a seamless transition from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett, and he had a third QB ready to put the team in game-winning position when Brissett went down.
The Colts have a funny problem: Replacing quarterbacks has become easy for them, but replacing Vinatieri could be difficult. Around the league, teams such as the Saints and the Panthers have replaced signal-callers without missing a beat, but kickers have vexed teams. The Patriots, who have been struggling to find a kicker to replace Gostkowski, cut Mike Nugent this week and signed Nick Folk, who most recently kicked in the now-defunct AAF. The Bears brought eight kickers in to rookie minicamp then traded for a ninth and then gave that guy the job. The Jets may have handled their kicking situation even worse. Somehow, some way, quarterbacks have been more easily replaced than kicker this season, and there is no better example than Indianapolis.
After Miami, the Colts play three consecutive divisional games against the Jaguars, Texans, and Titans. The AFC South is the closest division in football. Every team has between six and four wins. The Colts entered the day in first but dropped to second place behind Houston on Sunday. They could retake the lead or watch their playoff hopes dribble through their fingers depending on how their next month goes. Vinatieri can still rewrite the final chapter of his career and change history. Perhaps whatever he writes will be better than whatever Jim Irsay was reading about Vinatieri’s grandfather.