March 05, 2004
Opposite Ends Of The Kicking Spectrum
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: special teams.
Two men. Both kick.
One man holds for the other.
One man missed two of three field goals in the Super Bowl. The other had punts of 22, 23 and 33 yards in same game.
One man follows in the footsteps of Gino Cappelletti. The other follows in the footsteps of Lee Johnson.
One man missed 27.5 percent of his field goals this year, the worst of his career. The other had such a bad year that he was replaced for one game by someone named Brooks Barnard, then brought back only because he was so good a holder.
One man won a Super Bowl two years ago with a field goal at the final gun, but when asked about his feelings towards the champions, the son of the owner could only blurt out one name: the name of the other.
Two years later, that same field goal kicker won still another Super Bowl in the final seconds. The other tried to save his Patriot career with a 51-yard punt in the same game.
Fate is both kind and cruel. One is a legend. The other is so gone.
Trying to quantify what Adam Vinatieri means to the Patriot franchise, both in present tense as well as historical context, is as complicated as when Celtics scholars try and compare Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. Vinatieri is a kicker, and has really only one serviceable skill. The Celtic icons mentioned all had varied and remarkable talents. All Vinatieri can do is kick a football.
Yet nobody in New England would call you insane or stupid if you elevated Vinatieri to the highest pantheon of legendary sports figures in the area. And we're talking for all time here, not just since Y2K. A case could be made that, when this Patriotic run is over and some new era takes over, Tom Brady will be the brightest light that shines above all the rest. But if you classify Brady as a supernova, Vinatieri is right next to him in a cluster.
Or, you can look at it this way. The former twin towers in New York, David and Nelson, stood tall over Upper Bay until two rogue jets brought them down three Septembers ago. Two twin towers, Tom and Adam, tower over Foxborough in much the same way. No terrorist thug will ever bring them down.
It is likely that no opposing NFL team will, either.
Vinatieri shook off his worst season ever, overcame his kicking woes in Reliant Stadium (the only indoor venue where he has ever missed field goals in his career), and still managed to nail another Super Bowl winning kick about a month ago. It almost doesn't matter if Vinatieri has failures now and then. The fact that he can nail those kicks more than once is staggering.
On the NFL Films Super Bowl DVD, narrator Harry Kalas, whose deep, deliberate and resonant voice makes John Facenda sound like Pee Wee Herman (yes folks, we're exaggerating here), called Vinatieri "the best clutch field goal kicker in NFL history". And you thought that all Vinatieri would ever be known for was the guy who stole Matt Bahr's job in 1996. Not bad for a South Dakota State Jackrabbit, who's now more famous than anyone who has ever been in his line of work.
This writer disagreed with Cappelletti in 2002 when, at the victory rally, declared that Vinatieri was "the best kicker in Patriot history!" Nah, Duke, you were back then. Not any more. Today it is Adam, hands down, ball up, kick is good. Along with Ty Law (and other gents who someday will be known as such), Vinatieri is a current Patriot who is the greatest Patriot to play his position. Up at Fenway, you can see the franchise's best ever shortstop (for the time being) and right-handed starting pitcher (again, for the moment) playing for the Red Sox of today. Same feeling, and as the locals would say, simply wicked.
None of the great Celtics mentioned above won any championships by their hand alone. Technically, neither did Vinatieri (substitute foot for hand, of course). The Patriots are the living image of the closest thing possible to a perfect team. But few, if any, championship teams can boil their titles down to the efforts of one man who brought home the bacon like the Patriots can with Vinatieri. It is this reason why Vinatieri belongs up there with the greatest Boston sports legends of them all, and why his legacy in this area is as secure as any kick he makes which might win a Super Bowl.
And then, at the other end, you have Ken Walter. In what will be his punting swan song with the Patriots, he suffered through a miserable year. He only averaged 37.7 yards per kick, with one-third of his kicks inside the 20. Barnard had a miserable game in the snow against Miami, punting 10 times and averaging 32.6 yards per punt. Getting a new punter is very easy, the only problem will be replacing Walter's skill as a holder (remember that Vinatieri likes the ball angled away from him instead of towards).
The Patriots have a kickoff returner for many years to come in speedy Bethel Johnson. The rookie wideout made a huge impact on the kickoff return scene with his 92-yard gem at Indianapolis. Johnson is the fastest Patriot and is perfectly suited for this. The Patriots retained Kevin Faulk, who also has a history of success in kickoff returns, but this job is likely Johnson's for a while.
And if somehow Troy Brown does not return, who will return punts? Brown did not have his usual powerhouse season as a punt returner. Look for his replacement, if Brown does leave, to be Deion Branch. With some experience, Branch can become all what Brown was and more, as he is speedier and slipperier than Brown. He just needs to become smarter, which will simply take time.
Larry Izzo led a tough squad on kickoff coverage. Guys like Chris Akins, Tully Banta-Cain and Don Davis had their few shining moments on returns. Akins is almost exactly like Larry Whigham, in that he is a suspect defensive back who packs a wallop on kamikaze squads.
And don't forget this guy named Vinatieri, arguably the best tackling kicker in the league. Give this guy some speed and the Patriots perhaps win Super Bowl XXXI. And we don't mean by his kicking. We said that Vinatieri could do only one thing. We actually meant two things.
We do mean this: Patriots will come and go, but you'll probably never see Vinatieri anywhere else but Foxborough. He'll definitely never sign with the Texans.
Or anywhere else. The best clutch kicker in the history of the NFL will always be a Patriot. Because if there's a Super Bowl to be won, he's the man.
Next installment: coaching.
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