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March 26, 2005
Franchise The Kicker? Times Sure Are Good
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2004 New England Patriots. Today: special teams.

Lost in the shuffle from seven weeks ago this Sunday was the fact that once again, an Adam Vinatieri field goal won a Super Bowl.

Granted, this one wasn’t with less than ten seconds to go, and at the time his field goal made it 24-14 Patriots. But thanks to that late touchdown strike from Donovan McNabb to Greg Lewis, it became the final margin of victory. All three Patriot Super Bowl wins have been by three points, and Vinatieri was there for all three of them.

Not bad when you consider that his biggest Super Bowl moment had once been trying to chase down Desmond Howard on a 99-yard kickoff return.

Since that dark day in New Orleans in 1997, Vinatieri has kicked four Super Bowl field goals, missed two because of a bad plant shoe, and has gained a reputation of being the best clutch kicker in the game today, and perhaps of all time. Vinatieri rebounded from the worst statistical season of his career in 2003 to his best in 2004, hitting on 31 of 33 field goals during the season (93.9 percent). He also made all 48 conversion attempts. His 141 total points topped the entire league, and was 12 better than runner-up Jason Elam of Denver.

Oh, so this is why the Patriots have the temerity to franchise a kicker.

Temerity, yes. Who in the Sam Hill would waste a precious franchise tag on a kicker? Are things so good for the two-time champs that they feel they need to hassle a kicker with a franchise tag which is better used on someone else? Heck, if Vinatieri won’t sign, get him outta here and bring in some Owen Pochman dude who will replace him. I mean, anyone can kick a field goal, right?

You and I both know better, of course. And the last thing the Patriots could possibly think of as a reason to franchise Vinatieri would be the scoring title. The scoring title gets him a few more bucks from someone. But to place the franchise tag on Vinatieri? You the Patriot fan don’t even blink, and you know darned well why.

Those four Super Bowl field goals.

Face it, Vinatieri will never do any wrong in this region. He still has a ton of Dakota blood in him, but he has a permanent home in New England. Nobody in Yankton or Pierre or Sioux Falls will look at him the way someone from Wrentham, Norwood or Raynham will. Allowing Troy Brown to become a free agent was necessary, and he may still return to the team at a lower price. But Vinatieri requires different treatment, and franchising him is not only a popular move, it is a smart one.

Yes, you can get another kicker. It was David Posey, not John Smith, who kicked the division-clinching field goal against Buffalo in 1978. On the other hand, you can fire someone like Tony Franklin and replace him with Teddy Garcia and kick yourself later when you don’t like the results. You wonder why Miami ever let Pete Stoyanovich go, and then you sat down and shut up when you saw his replacement, Olindo Mare.

With Vinatieri, there are no maybes. 2004 proved that he is more than just clutch. You still want him there to win you a Super Bowl, but the fact remains that he is simply the best in the business. You can’t understate his value to the team. But where the salary cap comes into play, you again have to look at his position and think just a little bit. And we do mean just a little bit. Then you do what you can to keep him without killing your team’s salary structure.

The franchise tag will keep Vinatieri here for 2005 at $2.5 million. Any team wishing to pry him from the Patriots would have to cough up two first-round picks. However, since the Patriots did not sign him by March 15th, the Patriots must wait until after July 15th to do a long-term deal. Should the Patriots try and tie him down long term prior to July 15th, the team would lose the franchise tag for the duration on Vinatieri’s contract. Most experts think that something will get done once July 15th has passed, and that Vinatieri is not bitter over being tagged.

The other half of the Patriot kicking game, Josh Miller, did provide an upgrade in punting for the Patriots. Nowhere was that more evident than in the final minute of the Super Bowl, where Miller pooched a perfect kick which was downed at the Eagle four-yard line. 46 seconds later, the Patriots were Super Bowl champs again.

He wasn’t anywhere the league leaders in any important category. But he did help out the crippled defense with decent punts which usually did put the opponent deep in their own territory, somewhat akin to the aforementioned Super Bowl punt. About one-third of his punts landed inside the opponent 20-yard line, and that percentage was among the best in the league. He only had 56 punts in 2004, a testimonial to how well the Patriot offense performed (league leader Brad Maynard of Chicago had 108 punts in 2004).

Returners need to be upgraded in 2004. Bethel Johnson did have a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Cleveland, and his 24.8 yards per kickoff return was third in the league amongst returners with at least 40 returns. On the other hand, punt returning was a weak area for the champs. Kevin Faulk had 20 returns for a 6.7-yard average; Brown had 12 returns and a 6.9 average. But among all returners who had at least 20 punt returns, Detroit’s Eddie Drummond had a 13.2 average

Johnson will stick as the kickoff guy, and will get better with more experience. But special teams coach Brad Seely needs to settle on a solid punt returner. Seely also needs to address the issue of blocking schemes; someone with Johnson’s speed should be at the top of the pack instead of merely near it. Johnson’s breakaway speed should be good for two or three long returns a year, if not more.

Another area Seely has come under fire has been the kick coverage teams. The Patriots were fifth worst in the league in covering kickoffs (23.3 yard average per kick) and also fifth-worst in covering punts (11.8 yard average). It has long been the practice of the Patriots to use starters on the kamikaze squads. Whereas in some cases this is out of necessity, the Patriots need to take a close look at who should play on coverage teams (remember Ted Johnson a few Augusts ago?) and the coverage schemes they use. Je'Rod Cherry has taken the flame of Larry Whigham, while guys like Larry Izzo, Tully Banta-Cain and Don Davis make their biggest contributions in this area. But this is an area where the team must do better, especially with a defense in transition in 2005.

It’s in this annual column where we always seem to bring up the most unsung facet of Vinatieri’s game: He’s arguably the best tackling kicker in the league. Challenge Vinatieri to push Izzo for the Pro Bowl spot on coverage and see what happens.

Yes, we’re kidding.

Next installment: coaching.


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