Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Unequal Swap

I had just started my drive home last night when the news came over WEEI-Boston that Adam Vinatieri had signed with the Indianapolis Colts. The reaction of the sports talk hosts and callers can be summed up as "panic stricken."

There was sure to be gloom in Patriot Nation if/when The Greatest Jackrabbit left, but there were several factors that made yesterday's annoucement more traumatic. It appears the Patriots are not trying very hard to keep their veteran players, Vinatieri was lost to a key conference rival, and the leading candidate for the Patriot placekicking vacancy seems to be goofball Mike Vanderjagt.

The Patriots have let receiver David Givens, linebacker Willie McGinest and Vinatieri escape in free agency this winter. There have been no acquisitions of note. Regarding a replacement for McGinest, I'm sure Bill Belichick's plan is to find some underappreciated and undersized defensive end, coach him up at linebacker, and rotate him in with five other guys. The philosophy around here is it's better to pay middle-class wages to six OK linebackers rather than a king's ransom to one big-name guy. But you can't replace one great placekicker with six mediocre guys! Ask the Cowboys whether that works.

Everyone figured if Vinatieri left, he would be on his way to the NFC, either Green Bay or Dallas. Having Indy sign him was a thunderbolt. There are five teams in the AFC that Patriot fans have enjoyed tormenting recently: the three division rivals, the Steelers, and the Colts. With the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and Miami appearing poised to challenge for the division, having the Colts steal Vinatieri has introduced another little bit of doubt about whether Belichick still has his genius cap. The biggest nightmare for Patriot fans would be to see Vinatieri kick a game winner for the Colts in Foxboro in an AFC playoff game.

Still, the Pats apparently have a chance to sign the most accurate kicker in the history of the league, Vanderjagt. What's wrong with that? Maybe the superstar quarterbacks for the Colts and Patriots can explain.

Peyton Manning, 2003: "We're talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."

Tom Brady, 2005: "Adam is the most clutch kicker in the history of football."

When last seen, Vanderjagt had an ugly failure on an attempt that would have sent the playoff game against the Steelers into overtime. He sliced it so badly that it reminded me why I gave up golf. A few days later he was yukking it up on Letterman, which greatly irritated Colts management. That's why the black cloud stuck in the minds of Pats fans can be summed up thusly: "They got Adam and we're stuck with Vanderjerk."

Patriot safety/nutcase Rodney Harrison came up with the "Vanderjerk" nickname when the idiot kicker said something stupid before a playoff game two years ago. I think Vanderjagt is still expecting a beat-down from Harrison so I doubt he will be seen on the practice fields in Foxboro this fall. Maybe Belichick could get back some of that genius status by going with an undrafted free agent out of a Division II school. It worked spectacularly last time.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Greatest Jackrabbit...maybe

The greatest football player ever to come out of my alma mater South Dakota State is a placekicker, which you may consider pathetic if you went to a Division I-A school such as (for example) Colorado. But oh, what a kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Class of '95.

I have lived 10 miles from the New England Patriots' home in Foxboro since 1991. The first few years the Pats were awful and it didn't bother me when they got blacked out on TV because it meant a game involving better teams would be shown instead. But along about 1996, I started becoming more interested in the local team because (a) they were getting much more competitive under Coach Duane (Bill) Parcells and (b) they had an obscure kicker who happened to be from South Dakota State.

The kicker is no longer obscure. Vinatieri pulled off perhaps the most famous kick in NFL history four years ago during a blizzard. He followed it up with famous kicks #2 and #3 to win Super Bowls. He had a field goal that won a third Super Bowl but it doesn't qualify as all-time famous because it wasn't of the last-second variety. (Ho-hum.) Last season he set the team career scoring record, passing original Boston Patriot Gino Cappelletti. The South Dakota State guy is forever a New England hero even if he ends up playing for someone else this fall.

If the announcement comes that Vinatieri is leaving New England, no doubt the TV stations will play an assortment of his historic kicks again, but one play I wish they would show more often is from early in his career when he caught Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff. Perhaps the tape shows something different, but in my mind's eye I see him coming from five yards off the pace and running down the swift former Heisman Trophy winner. Some say that's the play that convinced Parcells to keep Vinatieri on the team, and the rest is history.

The stereotype about kickers is they are little European soccer players who yell, "I keek a touchdown" after making a field goal, but Vinatieri was a real football player in high school. He played quarterback and linebacker for the Rapid City Central High School Cobblers, and kicking was just an additional chore. (Other notable Cobbler graduates include one of my brothers and my sister, 20 years before Vinatieri.)

It's inconvenient when facts don't quite fit the story line, but I should admit that Vinatieri is not a hands-down choice as the best Jackrabbit football player ever. Jim Langer, South Dakota State '70, was the starting center on the undefeated '72 Dolphins team and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The annual award for the top Division II lineman is named after Langer. I'll still give the "Greatest Jackrabbit" nod to Vinatieri because Langer grew up in Minnesota and didn't go to high school with me or any of my siblings. Assuming Vinatieri gets into the Hall someday, how many other schools with a mediocre football history primarily in Division II (now I-AA) have two inductees?

In college football, North Dakota State is almost always better than South Dakota State, and it's a given that the University of Colorado is more powerful than either. But neither the Bison nor the Buffaloes have anyone in the Hall of Fame. Barring a late rush by someone such as Kordell Stewart (haha), Vinatieri's enshrinement in Canton will make it Jackrabbits 2, Native Bovines 0.