After being outplayed, outcoached, and outclassed for the better part of three-plus quarters, the Indianapolis Colts stood only a Mike Vanderjagt 46-yard field goal away from heading into overtime in their divisional playoff clash with the Steelers. With a lifetime accuracy percentage of 87.5 percent, and the ideal climatic conditions of the RCA Dome, sudden death appeared inevitable.
What emerged from Vanderjagt’s right foot looked like the human version of Keith Richards the morning after inhaling a bottle of Jagermister. Landing some twenty yards wide of the upright, this was not the first time Vanderjagt, known for his sideline towel-waving antics and outspoken comments, has gagged when it came to a pressure kick.
In 2001, Vandejagt could be seen taunting the fans from the Indianapolis sideline as the Colts looked on their way to disposing of the home-standing Dolphins in the AFC wildcard playoff game. A late rally tied the game at 17, but Vanderjagt’s failure to convert a 49-yard field goal on the last play of regulation allowed the Dolphins to escape with a 23-17 victory and eliminate the Colts from the playoffs, a prelude of what was to be for the next several years.
In a game that will forever be remembered back in 2003 as one of the greatest comebacks in Monday night history, Vanderjagt was credited with one of his 11 game-winning career field goals, a 29 yarder that glanced off of the right upright, but only after being bailed out by a leaping penalty that erased a 40-yard miss, and gave Indy the second chance it needed to cap a wild comeback from a 35-14 deficit to Tampa Bay in the last five minutes of regulation.
Last year, one could argue that Vandejagt’s last-second 48 yard miss in the opening game versus the Patriots which would have tied the game, may have cost the Colts a possible trip to the Super Bowl. A Colt victory in that contest would have given Indy home field advantage over the Patriots in their AFC Divisional game, a contest that while NE dominated, was played in the frigid conditions of Foxboro Stadium. Colt supporters would argue that a change of venue could have influenced the 20-3 New England victory, though Patriot supporters would contend that they were clearly the better team.
Ironically, it was prior to that very game that Vanderjagt inspired New England with bulletin board fodder, as if the Patriots really needed it, by publicly stating that New England was ‘ripe for the picking,’ and that the Patriots were ‘not as good as the beginning of the year, and not as good as last year’ (after New England's Super Bowl win over Carolina).
That was not the first outburst by the eight-year NFL veteran, who began his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 1993. Following the 2002 season, it was Vanderjagt that criticized Peyton Manning by saying that he needed ‘more emotion,’ and went on to proclaim that Tony Dungy was ‘too nice.’ Manning responded by calling Vanderjagt ‘an idiot’ and referred to him as being ‘liquored up’ as he rattled off his ill advised comments.
Vanderjagt had an unprecedented accomplishment in 2003, going the entire season, including the playoffs, without missing a single kick, 40 consecutive in total. In the prior year, on November 24, 2002, Vanderjagt had arguably his greatest moment when he converted two 50 plus-yard field goals against the Broncos in snowy Colorado, the first sending the game to OT on the final play of regulation, and the latter providing the margin of victory in a 23-20 comeback win. In 1998, Gary Anderson came within an eyelash of accomplishing the former feat by reeling off 37 straight kicks only to see the streak end on what was undeniably the most critical miss in Minnesota history. The errant 38 yarder with two minutes remaining left the door open for a late Falcon touchdown that would send the game into OT, a game that the Vikings would inevitably lose, 30-27.
No one could argue that in having converted 217 out of 249 lifetime field-goal attempts, Vanderjagt possesses uncanny accuracy. Unfortunately, Vanderjagt’s legacy is well on the way to being defined by his inability to make crucial kicks under pressure, besides his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth.
By contrast, Adam Vinatieri, out of tiny South Dakota State, has made a shade over 81 percent of his career field goals, a full six percentage points below that of Vanderjagt. But Vinateri has established himself as perhaps the greatest clutch field goal kicker in NFL history, with 19 game winners, many coming in artic-like conditions. While his last second deciding kicks in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII stand out, who could forget his 2002 performance against the Raiders in the ‘tuck rule’ game? Vinateri kicked a 45 yarder to tie the game, followed by a 22 yarder to win it while Foxboro stadium was engulfed in blizzard like conditions. In 2004, he had an encore performance by drilling a 46 yarder in similiar conditions to send the Titans to defeat.
Given the potential longevity of an NFL kickers’ career, and the impact he has on deciding games, I am often surprised how little attention kickers garner in the draft.
In 2000, Florida State kicker Sebastian Janowkowski was the first-round pick of the Raiders, going 17th overall. Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to 1979 and Russell Erxleben, a kicker out of the University of Texas, to find a situation in which an NFL team expended a first-round draft pick on a place kicker.
What value could one place upon a ‘money kicker’ like Adam Vinatieri? Opinions may vary, but present coach Bill Parcells, who treats kickers like week old tuna fish, or former Bills coach Marv Levy, whose best chance at scoring that elusive Super Bowl victory sailed wide right as Scott Norwood failed to convert a last second 47 yarder in Super Bowl XXV versus the Giants, would probably present a strong case on behalf of surrendering a kings’ ransom for a reliable, pressure proven kicker.
Vanderjagt’s problem, as with many kickers, goes beyond the practice field. The question is not his ability to make a 46-yard field goal in ideal conditions, for he can no doubt nail those all day long in situations void of any pressure. Vanderjagt’s issue is not one that can be overcome with repetition, nor can it be replicated in practice, for it is all mental, which is what prevents many athletes from taking their game to the next level. Let’s face it, kickers earn their pay ‘in the moment,’ and Mike’s moments have not lived up to expectations. The question is, can the Colts afford to go to war with Mike Vanderjagt, and will Tony Dungy be nice enough to keep him around.