A Special Trio Of Heroic Patriots

Bob George
March 4, 2002 at 9:20 pm ET

Next in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Special teams

The busses had just pulled in from Logan Airport on Monday night, February 4, 2002.

Just back from a win way down yonder in New Orleans, the Patriots came back to a reception of screaming, maniacal fans as the motor coach busses pulled into the Foxborough Stadium parking lot. Bill Belichick sat in the front of the first bus, clutching a trophy that answers to the name of Vince. Adam Vinatieri showed off the myriad of Mardi Gras beads he got as souvenirs.

Jonathan Kraft, the highest profile “chip off the old block” in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and rivaled nationally only by August A. Busch IV, was asked by Fox Sports New England for his reaction to all this. Kraft still looked as giddy as he did when he leapt into his father’s arms at about 8:30 PM central time the night before.

Kraft blubbered out some happy nonsense, then seemed to grope for one key player to single out for his superior contributions to the 2001 championship season. Kraft finally found one. He said the first name that came to mind.

Ken Walter.

I’ll tell you, the Patriots are the team to sign with if you kick a football for a living. Ownership loves you, the punter becomes the first non-coach to get a contract extension, and the kicker gets the first franchise tag in the history of the organization. That says a lot about the Patriots, when they use the franchise tag on the kicker.

But if a kicker ever deserved such a distinction, it’s Vinatieri. The devilishly handsome, formerly bearded South Dakotan is pushing to unseat Yankton’s Tom Brokaw as the most popular native son of the Coyote State. The man who coined the phrase “don’t talk to me” is drawing a lot of people who want to talk to him. His first official post-rally gig was to kick a football from one high rise to another on the David Letterman show.

Vinatieri will get a big payday sometime soon. It should be up near the top, if not at the top, of all field goal kickers in the NFL. The Patriots franchised him to retain exclusive negotiating rights, and would like a deal in place prior to March 15th (the last date in which they can re-use the franchise tag on someone else). If the Patriots do nothing, Vinatieri will still make about $1.2 million in 2002.

He won’t get the big bucks on raw stats alone. He was middle of the pack in total points (113) and field goals (24 of 30), and made all but one of 42 extra points. What will get Vinatieri his big payday is the term “money kicker”.

Vinatieri booted three of the most famous field goals in league history in this year’s postseason. Not just Patriots’ history. League history. Any kicker with this much ice water in his veins is someone every football team on the planet will want to hire.

Ice water is exactly what Vinatieri needed in the January 19th Snow Bowl at Foxborough Stadium. With his team given a reprieve thanks to referee Walt Coleman’s judgment, Vinatieri was faced with a 45-yard field goal attempt in a driving blizzard to merely tie the game at 13 and practically force overtime. Vinatieri booted a low line drive shot into the snow that just barely cleared the uprights. And in overtime, he kicked an equally snowy 23-yarder to win the game and send the Patriots to Pittsburgh for the conference championship. Vinatieri became a perfect six-for-six in his career in overtime kicks.

What most everyone was agog over was the 45-yarder to tie the game. It was with the wind, but given the snow all over the place and the pressure of the season that went with it, it had most observers amazed and stupefied. A few times during Super Bowl XXXVI, John Madden remarked about what great clutch kicks those were in the Snow Bowl.

Madden then saw firsthand what Vinatieri was all about. Now, with a Super Bowl win on the line and 48 long yards away, Vinatieri came in and booted the mother of all field goals. It won a world championship for the Patriots as time expired. You can’t get much bigger than that, except if the Patriots had been trailing at the time instead of tied.

The super kick will go down in the annals of Super Bowl lore, and overshadows Baltimore’s Jim O’Brien and his unlikely kick in Super Bowl V. O’Brien’s kick broke a late tie, but it was not a walkoff field goal. Look through any NFL history book you happen to come across and try to find a more important field goal than Vinatieri’s Vince Special.

The Patriots will try to get Vinatieri a good long-term deal before March 15th. The team did draft Owen Pochman last year to give Vinatieri some competition in kickoffs. But the Patriots waived Pochman, and he went on to become the regular kicker for the Giants. Kickers are generally considered a “dime a dozen” position, but Vinatieri’s penchant for money kicks warrants the chance to get some real big bucks.

Walter did not begin the season as Patriot punter. Lee Johnson spent enough time as the punter of the Patriots to become the NFL’s all-time leading punter while wearing the red, white and blue. But a disastrous game against San Diego cost him his job, and Walter was brought in.

The Patriots impressed Walter with their compassion when his wife gave birth at the doorstep of the playoffs. Walter impressed the Patriots with his penchant for pinning opponents inside their own 20 (24 of 49 punts). He didn’t have enough punts to qualify for league leader placement, but only Todd Sauerbrun of Carolina had a higher net punting average than Walter.

The Patriots rewarded Walter with a new five-year contract shortly after the season ended. Walter was only too happy to re-sign with the Patriots. Vinatieri was also perhaps real pleased, as Walter held for all those epic field goals.

Overall, the Patriot special teams had a good 2001 season, strong most everywhere, and weak only in kickoff coverage. Their return average defense was 22.1 yards per return, placing them in the bottom half in the league. Picking up Larry Izzo from Miami helped ease the loss of Larry Whigham, but the kamikaze squad, which generally has some starters out there, needs to improve in 2002.

The brightest non-kicker on special teams was Troy Brown. Vinatieri’s legendary kicks tend to overshadow Brown’s punt returns, and that’s a shame. Brown did have three punt return gaffes in the postseason (fumble in the Snow Bowl recovered by Izzo, misplaying the punt prior to the touchdown which was nullified by a penalty at Pittsburgh, and calling for a fair catch in the Super Bowl with 30 yards of open space in front of him). But his touchdown against Pittsburgh on a punt return was the linchpin that sent the Patriots on their way to New Orleans.

Brown led the NFL in punt return average with 14.2 yards per return, edging out Atlanta’s Darrien Gordon. He was the only punt returner in the NFL to return two punts for touchdowns (against Cleveland and Carolina), and he added the third in the AFC Championship Game. Brown is one of those rare talents who are exceptional at two different things in the NFL; he is Pro Bowl calibre at both wide receiver and punt returner.

Kickoff returns are something that the Patriots simply don’t feature anyone special. Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass did most of the kickoff returns, with Faulk falling way behind the league (he was six yards per return behind the league leader, San Diego’s Ronney Jenkins). If Terry Glenn wasn’t such a problem, some people thought he might be the answer returning kicks. As of right now, the Patriots really don’t excel on either side of the ball on kickoffs.

Don’t despair, Patriot Nation. Vinatieri, Walter and Brown more than make up for it. What a trio of heroes.

A very special trio, indeed.

Next feature: Coaching

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