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Not Just for Kicks

Vinatieri leaves New England for Indianapolis, where he's hoping to remain part of a Super Bowl contender

September 01, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

One of the biggest acquisitions of the NFL off-season, a player who could tilt the balance of power in the AFC -- winner of five of the last six Super Bowls -- never lifted a finger to help his old team.

Adam Vinatieri did it all with his right foot.

The Indianapolis Colts, tearing a page from the if-you-can't-beat-'em-sign-'em book, coaxed Vinatieri from New England in March, staking claim to the best clutch kicker in league history.

To make room, the Colts let go of Mike Vanderjagt, the league's most accurate kicker but also a controversial motor-mouth whose big miss in the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season contributed mightily to his team's ouster. The Colts were ready for a change, and they got one.

"One of my major concerns was coming to a contender," said Vinatieri, 33, who signed a five-year, $10-million deal. "If I was going to a new team, I wanted it to be one that had a shot."

The Colts do, even though they lost running back Edgerrin James to Arizona, outside linebacker David Thornton to Tennessee and defensive tackle Larry Tripplett to Buffalo. As significant as those departures are, Indianapolis still has an on-the-rise defense, quarterback Peyton Manning, receiver Marvin Harrison ... and now Vinatieri, who kicked the game-winning field goals in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII.

While Vinatieri's debut may be delayed because of a broken bone in his left foot, Vanderjagt wound up with Dallas, which should appreciate him because the Cowboys have not finished better than 16th in kicking accuracy since 2001.

Meanwhile, New England, which established the NFL's only dynasty in the age of free agency, picked a curious replacement for their ever-reliable kicking star. The Patriots signed Martin Gramatica, who had not played in a regular-season game since Tampa Bay released him midway through the 2004 season. Gramatica didn't make it out of camp, however, leaving the job to Stephen Gostkowski, a rookie out of Memphis.

By definition, the team to beat in the AFC -- and, in fact, the league -- is the Steelers, who beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Time will tell if things will stay that way, considering that the Steelers lost running back Jerome Bettis to retirement and receiver Antwaan Randle El to Washington, and that they are hopeful that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can return to form after a serious motorcycle accident.

Indianapolis doesn't play Pittsburgh this season, but the Colts play at New England on Nov. 5 in a nationally televised Sunday night game. Before leading his team to victory there in November, Manning was 0-7 against the Patriots at Foxborough and saw the Colts' playoff hopes die there in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"For the longest time we kind of had the Colts' number," Vinatieri said. "I'm hoping that trend has swung to the other side."

Regardless, he expects this season's showdown to feel very strange.

"It will be interesting being out there and seeing the old stadium from a different point of view, standing on the visitors' sidelines, and hearing the people out there yell the opposite way," he said. "It will definitely take some getting used to."

Then again, he has been in his share of unusual situations -- ones such as the last game at the old Foxborough Stadium, the "Snow Bowl" game five years ago, when he kicked off the Patriots' dynasty with two improbable field goals in a divisional playoff game against Oakland.

Stranger still was his "Late Show With David Letterman" appearance, when the host had him try a kick from one building top to another, where Donald Trump was waiting to field the ball.

"I never got it there," Vinatieri recalled. "It was 93 yards and I didn't quite make it. A few of them bounced off the lip of the building, so that was kind of unfortunate.... I wish I had a little wind at my back."

Vanderjagt made an appearance on Letterman too, only a few days after missing a 46-yard field-goal attempt in the waning seconds of the 21-18 playoff loss to the Steelers. On the show, Vanderjagt kicked a 46-yarder on a New York City street. A lot of folks back in Indianapolis didn't appreciate the joke.

The Colts are hoping that with Vinatieri on their roster the last laugh is theirs.



Times Staff Writer Sam Farmer ranks the conference 1-16:

1. Indianapolis Colts

* Colts swapped the league's most accurate kicker for its most clutch kicker, and that's an upgrade.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

* The Bus is gone, and Ben Roethlisberger needs to prove that there won't be lasting effects from his near-fatal motorcycle accident. So far, so good.

3. Denver Broncos

* Will Jake Plummer stay on track with Jay Cutler waiting in the wings? Or is it back to the Jake-the-Mistake days?

4. New England Patriots

* Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still around, but losing Adam Vinatieri -- especially with a team that doesn't win many blowouts -- really hurts.

5. Miami Dolphins

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