INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As the seasons have unfolded – one, two, three, 23 – and the dark in Adam Vinatieri’s beard has continued to lose its battle with the gray, the exclusive neighborhood has awaited his arrival.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, more than 25,000 players in NFL history have pulled on a uniform. Only three have done so after their 46th birthday.
Friday, Vinatieri takes up residence.
“Four of us?’’ he asked.
Yes, four of you.
“It’s a badge of honor when you talk about years in the league because it’s difficult to stay relevant and good and perform well year-in and year-out, year-in and year-out,’’ said Vinatieri, who celebrates his 46th birthday Friday. “To do it for a couple of years is one thing. To do it for two decades is pretty difficult.
“You have to continuously work your butt off day-in and day-out to be ready to go. It doesn’t mean anything other than you’ve been able to do what you do for a long time and do it at high enough level they want to keep you around.’’
The NFL is a nomadic venture. Rosters are juggled on a weekly basis during the season, then often overhauled in February.
That’s especially true for placekickers and specialists.
“If you have a bad year,’’ Vinatieri said with a shrug, “they generally look to replace you. When you get older, there are lots of things that go into it. The money goes up from what the rookie salaries are.
“You have to prove you’re worth it.’’
In one of those against-the-grain instances, Vinatieri actually has elevated his game as he’s peeled pages off the calendar. Consider:
- In his six seasons since turning 40, he’s converted 88.8 percent of his attempts (167-of-188), including 76.5 percent of his attempts of at least 50 yards (26-34).
- In his 17 prior seasons, he knocked down kicks at a 82.6 rate (413-of-500), including 16-of-32 on 50-plus yarders.
And here he is, heading into his 353rd career regular-season game, which will break a tie with Jeff Feagles and move him into a tie with Gary Anderson for the second-most appearances in NFL history. Andersen’s mark of 382 is two seasons away. Only Tom Brady (37) has appeared in more postseason games than Vinatieri (30).
“It’s special because it’s hard to do it,’’ he said. “I think it’s more difficult the older you get to keep your body where it needs to be. It becomes more of a physical thing, but the mental part is important as well.’’
Vinatieri has checked off a few historical boxes during his 23rd season. He supplanted Andersen as the NFL’s all-time scoring leader (2,591 points and counting) and moved Andersen’s record for made field goals to 580. The Colts’ late-season push toward the postseason also has pushed his career regular-season win total to a league-record 214.
Vinatieri values the individual achievements, but make no mistake, they’re secondary.
The overriding reason he’s still around is the lure of the playoffs, and more.
Sunday in Nashville, the Colts face the Tennessee Titans in a win-and-in rematch. With a victory, they earn the final AFC wild-card spot. If Houston loses at home to Jacksonville, they secure the AFC South and host a playoff game Jan. 5-6.
“This is why you bust your butt during the offseason and you put in all of that extra time and effort and go through sweaty training camps,’’ Vinatieri said. “It’s not to get to week 17 and just pack up your stuff and go home.’’
The Colts have won 8 of their last 9 following a 1-5 start and are one step away from returning to the postseason for the first time since 2014. That season, they advanced to the AFC Championship game.
The only holdovers from that team: Vinatieri, Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Anthony Castonzo.
Vinatieri agreed it “feels like a long time ago’’ since the Colts were part of the postseason picture.
“There were years you were just used to making it every year,’’ he said. “You didn’t take it for granted, but you expected to be in contention at the end of the year and it’s been awhile.
“The last few years have been pretty meek. We’re not there yet, but we’ve given ourselves a shot.’’
During his previous 22 seasons, Vinatieri was part of 14 playoff teams. He’s kicked in five Super Bowls and been to six if you include Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season with the Colts when an injury kept him inactive.
The Colts have faced one big game after another following their 1-5 start. Frank Reich went so far as to insist they’ve been in playoff mode the past two months.
The actual playoffs, though, are a different animal. And that should be the only motivation players need as they walk onto the Nissan Stadium turf Sunday night.
“It’s just different. Playing in the playoffs is just different,’’ Vinatieri said. “Everything amps up. More excitement, more this, more that.
“You know you’ve got a chance of playing for something bigger than a paycheck. I feel like the first 16 gets you to the chance where you get an opportunity to play for something special.’’
“You have to earn it. That’s the cool part about it.’’
Not done yet
Vinatieri is working on a one-year, $3.625 million contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in February.
Even so, returning for a 24th season is on the table.
“I’ve said before let’s get through the season and see where we’re at,’’ he said. “Do they have an interest in bringing me back? There’s nothing in me right now that says I’m done.
“I don’t think I’ve fallen off yet. I still feel like I can put a good product on the field. I still enjoy doing it. It’s something I discuss with my family after every season. My parents are getting older. My kids are getting older; they’re in high school. There are a lot of things that go into it.’’
The attractiveness of returning for a 14th season with the Colts is obvious.
“I love this,’’ Vinatieri said, looking around the locker room. “Watching our team climbing and being relevant and being good, that gets you excited.
“If you’re a team that’s 2-14, it’s less fun. This has been fun. This has been a blast.’’