INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The routine never changes, but sometimes the stakes are dramatically higher.
Luke Rhodes relays the line of scrimmage – is the football resting on a yard line, or somewhere between two? – then takes his place as long-snapper in the middle of the field-goal protection unit. Rigoberto Sanchez consults with Adam Vinatieri on where the ball will be spotted, and takes a knee to the right of the spot.
Vinatieri looks at the spot, glances at the goal post so many yards away and squares himself up. He takes two forceful steps back, then two to his left.
Then . . . snap, hold, kick.
That was the sequence when the Indianapolis Colts’ first possession Sunday against Denver stalled. Rhodes, Sanchez and Vinatieri took their places, but Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal attempt sailed badly to the right. Watch the replay and you’ll notice linebacker Joseph Jones disrupting the process by jumping through the middle of the Colts’ protection and drawing a bead on the ball.
Notable about the timing of the miss: there still were nearly 46 minutes of clock-time remaining. Plenty of time to atone.
That also was the sequence on the Colts’ final possession at Lucas Oil Stadium. Frank Reich felt comfortable enough in Vinatieri’s I’ve got this history that he temporarily abandoned his aggressive approach and positioned the offense for what would be a 51-yard make-it-or else field goal. Indy trailed 13-12 and was at the Denver 33. Twenty-six seconds remained.
It was make it or lose.
Vinatieri made it. Dead. Solid. Perfect.
“I knew that was money for Adam,’’ Reich said after the game. “I have all the confidence in the world in Adam.’’
Reich relies on analytics and certainly understood Vinatieri’s proclivity for rising to the moment and embracing it. He might even have had his veteran placekicker’s production under pressure in mind.
The 51-yarder was Vinatieri’s 29th game-winner in the fourth quarter or overtime. It was his 12th since joining the Colts as a free agent in 2006, and at 46, he’s the oldest player in NFL history to nail a 50-plus yard field goal to win a game in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.
It also added to Vinatieri’s reputation for not flinching when there’s absolutely no room for botching a kick.
Since relocating to Indy, he’s now 14-of-15 on kicks in the final 2 minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime on attempts to put the Colts ahead, tie or win the game. His only miss: a 29-yarder at San Diego with 1:34 remaining that left Indy with a 23-21 loss.
Sunday’s game-winner came after he missed that opening 45-yard attempt and a PAT.
When it came time to have Vinatieri win it, Reich never hesitated.
“A bad kick or two or a miss or two isn’t going to affect years and years and years and years of positive feedback and experience,’’ he said. “That’s what’s so easy for all of us to have that confidence in him, but more importantly for him to have the confidence in what he is doing himself.’’
Vinatieri insists all field-goal attempts are created equal, even though the game-winners are the ones that ignite fans and shape seasons.
“The way I look at it is every single time I step on the field is important,’’ he said. “Those points are important no matter when they come. You never know how a game’s going to end up. Sometimes the course of a game changes because you made kicks early. Now the score is different. Maybe they’ve got to be going for touchdowns instead of field goals.
“Most games are won or lost by one touchdown. The margin of error is so small. Obviously, at the end of the game it’s critical, but I still feel it’s critical at the beginning of the game as well.’’
But 14-for-15 when there’s virtually no margin for error?
Reich smiled at the thought.
“Here is what I love about Vinny: he’s got as much of an edge as any player,’’ he said. “That’s really what’s amazing about him, that he has this mental edge that he literally never lets his guard down. He never rests on his past success. However, many kicks he’s made, he’s got an edge to him all the time.’’
Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time leader in points (2,646) and made field goals (593). He also holds virtually every postseason kicking record, including points (234) and field goals (56). His successful kicks include two beat-the-clock numbers that delivered Lombardi Trophies to the New England Patriots: a 48-yarder as time expired that turned back the St. Louis Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI and a 41-yarder with 4 seconds remaining that topped Carolina 32-29 two years later.
Vinatieri went out for his latest game-winning attempt not thinking about the hiccups he’s dealt with. He’s already missed eight kicks – four field goal attempts and four PATs – which is the most since he endured eight in 2007 (six FGAs, two PATs).
With everything on the line and time slipping away, only one thing mattered. Make it.
“I don’t know, I guess I have the ability to focus in at the end of the game,’’ he said. “We were all on point at the end of the game. Everybody was very much tuned in.’’
Vinatieri prepared for the kick by not simply watching things unfold.
“Stay mentally into the game and know when we’re down by a point and there’s 3 minutes and it’s ticking away, you have to feel like unless one of our receivers breaks a tackle and goes 60 yards for a touchdown, we’re playing to get into field goal range and have that opportunity,’’ he said.
“You know what the expectation is. You also know it’s a production-type of league. There’s a lot of things that come and go if you’re not doing your job. That’s always got to be in the back of your mind, but it shouldn’t be in the front of your mind.
“You know how important each time you step on the field is.’’
That was never more evident than in the season-opening overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Vinatieri missed 46- and 29-yard field goal attempts along with a PAT. Had he made any of those, things likely would have ended much differently.
For those keeping track, Vinatieri has been on the field for 32 special teams snaps in seven games. There’s always pressure. Points always are on the line.
“Part of the deal,’’ he said.
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