Special Teams: Recapping the 2019 Colts

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TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 08: Adam Vinatieri #4 of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during warmup prior to a football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Final installment: Special teams

  • Kicker: Chase McLaughlin.
  • Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
  • Kick returner: Zach Pascal.
  • Punt returner: Nyheim Hines.
  • Injured reserve: PK Adam Vinatieri, PR Chester Rogers.

The Bad:

Where do we begin? A lingering knee injury contributed to a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer enduring the worst of his 24 seasons, and the team compounded the situation by sticking with Adam Vinatieri when everything screamed for it to do something, anything else. Vinatieri missed a career-high 14 kicks – 8 field goals, 6 PATs – and it’s not a stretch to argue that cost the Colts three victories. His final attempt before being placed on the injured reserve list was a 46-yarder against Tennessee in week 13. In a 17-17 game with 5 minutes to play, the kick not only was blocked, but returned for a touchdown in what would be a crippling 31-17 setback.

“It was a grind,’’ Vinatieri admitted.

The left knee – that’s his plant leg – had been bothering Vinatieri for a few years, and the hope was extensive rehab and rest during the preseason would at least ease the problem. That wasn’t the case. Vinatieri missed 46- and 29-yard field goal attempts and a PAT in the season-opening overtime loss to the Chargers. He then missed two PATs week 2 against the Titans. A missed PAT was crucial in a 16-12 loss to Miami.

Despite Vinatieri’s struggles, the team stuck with him. Even in hindsight, apparently no one would have done anything differently.

“I do not regret the decisions we made with Adam,’’ Ballard said. “Not at all.’’

Ballard brought in six kickers for a tryout in early September, but was convinced none was better than what he already had.

“I wish it would’ve worked out better numbers-wise,’’ Reich said. “But when I look back on it . . . given all the factors, given his history, given what we were seeing out at practice and given the fact that he started out a little bit slow and got into a little bit of a groove for three or four games . . . he had earned the right to play that thing out until the end with the injury.

“So, no, I don’t have any regrets on it.’’

We’re not laying all of the special teams travails on Vinatieri. Two of his field-goal attempts were blocked, and a potential game-winning 43-yarder at Pittsburgh went wildly wide left when he was forced to kick smack on the laces. He also had a PAT blocked.

Rigoberto Sanchez wasn’t credited with a blocked punt, but had a punt deflected in the opener against the Chargers. Protection was a mess all season.

The Good:

It took some time, but a few positives finally emerged.

Chase McLaughlin stepped in when Vinatieri went on IR and gave every indication he’s a serious candidate to be the kicker in 2020 (more on that in a bit). He converted 5-of-6 field-goal attempts – the miss was a 47-yarder that hit the right upright – and all 11 of his PATs.

“We liked him,’’ Ballard said. “The 50-yarder in Jacksonville on the grass? That was a pretty cool moment. I’m happy with Chase. You come in and you have to follow Adam Vinatieri . . . you’ve got a little something to you.’’

And then there was Nyheim Hines. After an inglorious attempt at returning punts as a rookie, the 2018 fourth-round draft pick bided his time behind Chester Rogers. When Rogers suffered a season-ending knee injury week 13 against Tennessee, Hines was given another opportunity. He literally ran with it. Hines averaged 16.5 yards on four returns against the Titans and Tampa Bay, then went off the charts in week 16 against Carolina: a team-record 195 yards on three returns, including 84- and 71-yard TDs.

Rogers was more than adequate as a punt returner – he averaged 9.8 yards before the injury, which would have ranked 3rd in the NFL – but Hines added an explosive threat. Despite returning only 9 punts, he piled up 281 yards, the third-highest total in the league.

The Offseason:

The overriding question – What to do with Vinatieri? The Colts have signed him to six contracts since 2006. There’s every reason to believe there might not be a seventh.

Ballard must determine whether it makes sense to re-sign a 47-year old kicker who will be coming off major knee surgery to compete with McLaughlin, or simply stick with McLaughlin. Vinatieri underwent surgery in December to address a meniscus issue and “jumper’s knee,’’ which involves the patella tendon. The normal rehab is 4-6 months.

“We’ll let him rehab the knee and see where he’s at physically,’’ Ballard said.

Surgery was the only option if Vinatieri wanted to return for a 25th season, and he gave every indication he didn’t want to go out with his final kick being the kick-6 against the Titans.

“I don’t want my last year being like this,’’ Vinatieri said. “I’m going to do the right thing for myself and the team and turn around and weigh my options. I’m not willing to say one way or the other if this is it. I’m going to do all the rehab I can if I’m coming back. From April-May, we’ll know for sure if I’m coning back. It all depends on how it responds.

“I know the writing’s on the wall for all of us. The older you get, at some point it comes to an end. But I do know one thing: when I feel good, I kick well. I didn’t have the luxury of feeling well pretty much all season.

“Hopefully we’ve got another chapter left. We’ll cross that road when we get there. I promise you one thing: I’m gonna bust my dang ass every day . . . to give myself a chance to see. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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