Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Yeah, kicking was the Colts' problem

All the radioactive dust appears to have settled out of the air following the Indianapolis Colts' signing of former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. Raise your hand if, like me, you're more surprised by the reaction to the deal than the deal itself. For one thing, the use of the word "traitor"* has thankfully been kept to a minimum in New England, where, wonder of wonders, many Patriot fans have chosen to remember Vinatieri with fondness and even acknowledge that after all he'd done for them, he had every right to chase as much money as possible. More people seem to be blaming the team for (understandably) refusing to pay Vinatieri's price than are blaming Vinatieri for (understandably) asking it. Miracles never cease.

Even more heartwarming in this story is that both Vinatieri and the Colts got exactly what they wanted.

Vinatieri got the career-capping, long-term contract he was seeking: five-years for $12 million, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. He gets to kick for a team with a supposedly yardage-gobbling offense, which means a higher percentage of short field goals, and he gets to kick indoors after a decade on the frozen sod -- or at least the frozen painted dirt -- of first Foxboro and later Gillette. I've come to love the little bastard, and I'm happy for him.

The Colts, meanwhile, got what they've deluded themselves into thinking was their "one missing piece": a clutch kicker.

I can understand why the Indianapolis brain trust would be reluctant to watch the tape of the Colts' painful, embarrassing loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. But they really should go back and review he footage, because as it stands, they've somehow concluded that Indy lost the game only because Mike Vanderjagt botched the tying 46-yard field goal with less than a minute to go.

We can all agree that Vanderjagt is a horse's ass who had worn out his welcome in Indianapolis, if not the United States, well before that grisly January Sunday. And while laying the loss to Pittsburgh squarely at his precious Canadian feet is tempting, it's also wrong. The Colts didn't lose because Vanderjagt failed in the final minute; they lost because the entire team -- players and coaches -- failed in the first 59 minutes. The Steelers were simply better prepared and better coached. They had a better strategy, better execution. They were the better team. The Steelers came screaming out of the tunnel and built a 14-point first-quarter lead, while the Colts gave themselves headaches trying to figure out why their game plan was suddenly failing them when it had worked so well in September and October. Sure, the Colts clawed their way back into the game, but Vanderjagt wouldn't have even been in position to miss the tying kick if the officials hadn't thieved the game-clinching interception from the Steelers. (But, you know, you'd never hear Pittsburgh fans complain about officiating. That's for losers!)

When you consider that the Colts' season began unraveling with the loss to the Chargers in the 14th game, you realize it was for the best that they lost to Pittsburgh. Let's say Vanderjagt actually got the ball through the uprights. (Better yet, let's say Peyton Manning used the two downs before the kick to try to get Vanderjagt into better position, rather than throw deep passes that fooled no one.) If the Colts tied it, then somehow won in overtime, they'd have then hosted Denver in the AFC Championship Game. And they would have gone into the game with the same script they used all season, and they'd have lost because by that point, the Colts were ... I don't want to say bad, because they weren't. What they were was predictable. And uninspired. And that isn't the kicker's fault. It's the coaches'. It's the organization's.

By all means, put a boot on Mike Vanderjagt's ass. But don't think getting rid of him is going to solve what's killing the team. And don't think that bringing in Adam Vinatieri is going to do it, either.

*The "traitor" issue: I was just sure that the fans in Boston were going to burn Vinatieri in effigy, because the Patriots-Colts "rivalry" is one of the most bizarre in sports. It's sort of like Yankees-Red Sox, except the polarity is totally screwy.

Prior to 2004, the Red Sox had never beaten the Yankees when it counted, so the relationship between the teams was only a "rivalry" in the sense that a nail has a rivalry with a hammer. The Yankees -- smugly superior, perennial winners, longtime stake through the heart of Red Sox Nation -- drove Boston fans up the wall. And the largest indignity of it all? The Yankees didn't seem to care. Now think about Colts-Patriots. For whatever reason, fans of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots just can't seem to get over the six-time playoff-choking Indianapolis Colts. They utterly despise Manning. They get weirdly defensive about Tom Brady. The Colts have yet to beat the Patriots when it counts, and yet the Patriots' fans are totally hung up on Indy. Makes no sense to me.

(And speaking of the Yankees and Red Sox, I have to ask this about Johnny Damon: Since when is it a treasonous act to get the best deal you can? Sure, Damon followed the money to New York -- the same way he followed the money to Boston from Oakland four years earlier. The guy came up with the Kansas City Royals, for pete's sake, and he arrived in Boston as a free agent. Just like nearly every other key member of the Series-winning 2004 Sox. Stow the outrage.)

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