Thursday, March 23, 2006

Here's the kicker

So I'm sitting here trying to make sense of four pages of notes regarding The Vinatieri Departure, most of which were scribbled during my Maine to Boston commute or the 3 a.m. retracing of my I-95 tracks. Let's just say I'm not having much luck deciphering my own handwritten so-called "insight."

Some of my crumpled words applaud the Patriots' steel-hearted determination to assigning a value to a player and sticking to that number: ("Belichick/Pioli don't pay for past performance, they pay for the performance they expect in the future").

Others lament Vinatieri's farewell as unnecessary and wonder why they could make an exception for a player who has meant and accomplished so much: ("We've forgotten about kicks he's made that would be the highlight of other kickers' careers.")

And other scribblings are simply truths that really have no bearing at all on the situation: ("SHUT THE *#&# UP, ORDWAY!")

As you probably have gathered by this point, I'm having a hard time coming up with a coherent, flowing column here - you know, something with a beginning, a middle, an end, and maybe even an actual friggin' point.

Part of the reason, obviously, is because my note-taking system is somewhat flawed. But mostly, though, it's because my thoughts on the subject remain so contradictory.

I can't imagine Vinatieri playing anywhere else, especially for the soulless Colts, and I'm pissed that he is.

And yet . . . the Patriots rarely if ever wrongly evaluate one of their own players (depending upon how you feel about Greg Spires), and you simply have to assume that there is a logical reason for parting ways with the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the sport.

With all of these conflicting thoughts flowing out of my fingers, I figure I'm better off just pecking out some scattered thoughts on Vinatieri's sad (or is it necessary?) departure and hoping at least some of them strike a chord:

• I still don't understand what really happened here. Questions, questions . . . and so few answers. Do the Patriots think he's slipping, that his aching back, age, and slightly decreased efficiency last season suggest that the end is nearer than anyone realizes? Or did Vinatieri want to leave? After all, the Patriots did make him the highest-paid kicker in the league the past two seasons, and while their final contract offer was not nearly as rich as Indy's $11 million nest egg, it reportedly wasn't exactly an insult, either. Did the Patriots consider statistical analysis from such places as, putting faith in numbers crunchers who suggest, with much reasoning, that Vinatieri ultimately has a miniscule impact on winning and losing football games? Or did the Patriots underestimate just how much of an advantage it is - psychological or otherwise - to have the most accomplished big-game kicker in league history warming up on their sideline as the clock wound down in a tight game? As for the most glaring question of all - did the Patriots make a mistake? - I think the answer will remain murky for some time. By going to the Colts, who play in a domed stadium and have that famously potent offense, Vinatieri was shrewd: With all of those factors in his favor, he's going to continue putting up 100-point-plus seasons even if his skills have eroded to the point that he'd no longer be as effective at frigid, muddy Gillette.

• The perception that the acquisition of Vinatieri has given the Colts the final piece they need to get past the Patriots (and I suppose the Steelers, too, since they won the Super Bowl and all) is, of course, ridiculous. While Colts GM Bill Polian - who, if you've ever heard how defensive he gets in interviews or heard about his classless behavior in the press box, clearly has an unhealthy hatred for the PAY-tree-OTTS (as he pronounces it) - is surely celebrating his coup, it's gone unnoticed that Indy lost versatile running back Edgerrin James, dependable linebacker David Thornton (who'd have been a good fit in New England) and defensive tackle Larry Triplett to free agency. The Colts have taken at least as many roster hits as the Pats have during their allegedly disastrous offseason, and you could argue that they have suffered more simply because the Patriots have not lost a player the caliber of James. But the storyline is that the sky is falling in Foxboro, and you bet that's the storyline that's being shoved down our throats, reality be damned.

• A good buddy of mine who covered the Pats during the '96 Super Bowl run tells a story about Vinatieri, and for some reason it's been rattling around in my head for the past few days. It goes like this: During one of the days leading up to the Super Bowl with the Packers, the Pats were fulfilling their media obligations in the locker room. Vinatieri, then a rookie without much of a resume, was clearly enjoying the new attention. Just then, Drew Bledsoe walks into the room. Spying Vinatieri reveling in regaling the press, the quarterback muttered in his patented dry monotone: "The Adam Vinatieri press conference." Okay, maybe the story doesn't translate to type all that well, but it still strikes me as funny if only for the irony: ten years after the superstar quarterback enjoyed a needling joke at the all-but-anonymous kicker's expense, who'd have known that the kicker would have left behind a much richer legacy?

• So who is the Pats' kicker going to be? I have no idea. I thought Paul Edinger, with his cold weather experience in Chicago, was a good idea. Then my boss read me his horrific stats from last season in Minnesota, and it became apparent that Edinger kicked last season like he was worried Fred Smoot was sneaking up behind him with one of his toys. I do trust that Pioli and Belichick have a few names in mind, and the Pats did bring a quality kicker (Robbie Gould, who ended up have a good rookie year in Chicago) into camp last season to "challenge" Vinatieri. They'll find someone suitable, though he'd better come with a thick skin, because he's going to hear "Vinny woulda made it!" every time he misses one. I'm just glad it won't be Mike Vanderjagt, who is the anti-Adam in terms of his reliability in the biggest moments. His attempt at the end of the Pittsburgh playoff game missed so badly that the NFL competition committee is considering changing the term "shank" to "pulling a Vanderjagt" in his honor. Plus, he's a jackass. This one's all yours, Tuna.

• The highest compliment I can pay to Vinatieri is to say that every time he trotted onto the field with the outcome hanging in the balance, I was completely certain he was going to make the kick. Do you realize how rare and unique that feeling is? Considering how much can go wrong on a field goal attempt, it's truly amazing that a kicker could deliver that much confidence, then deliver on the field, every single damn time. One could argue that Vinatieri - whether it was with his kicks in the Snow Bowl or the one that beat the Rams in the Super Bowl - triggered a renaissance in Boston sports, that his clutch performances changed the mind set of New England fans. He actually made us believe that our teams could win. His dependability and guts, combined with a handsome mug and a friendly, polished persona, made Vinatieri an immensely popular football player, almost as if he received a promotion from the status of kicker. (Chasing down Herschel Walker didn't hurt his reputation, either.) It always struck me as cool that so many Pats fans wore Vinatieri jerseys - I mean, how many teams even sell their kicker's jerseys? I'm guessing a Mike Nugent replica isn't exactly a best-seller at the Meadowlands pro shop. I guess my point, in my usual rambling way, is this: It may have been time for Adam Vinatieri to move on. But no one will ever truly replace him.

• The Pats and Colts play in Foxboro next season. If the football gods have any sense of drama, the outcome will hinge on the swing of Vinatieri's right leg in the final seconds. Maybe then, and only then, will we finally know if this was the right thing to do.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Because sometimes, it really is random. (That, and we couldn't find cards of Scott Sisson or Jason Staurovsky.)

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Just thought I'd share an email I got from my buddy CJ tonight regarding yesterday's comments on Adam Morrison. In light how tonight's Gonzaga game ended - with Morrison in apparent tears before the final buzzer sounded - I thought it was prescient as well as damn funny. For some reason, I'm picturing Mike (Adam Goldberg) from "Dazed and Confused" when I read this. ("Dominant male monkey #*$*$*#$*#*#*#*#*!"):

"Are you skeptical of Morrison's talents because the guy seems to be as mentally stable as Randle P. McMurphy post-lobotomy? Seems like the type of guy who fights some SERIOUS demons when he's drunk, maybe even bursts into tears every once in a while."

Yup, I'd say that's probably an accurate assessment.

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Finally, thanks to all of you who voted for TATB for the Best Independent Sports Website. It makes us giddier than Johnny Weir after a four-pack of wine coolers to know that you regard us so highly. And if you didn't vote, well, click here and cast your ballot and show us some love, if ain't too much trouble. We want that first-place prize - a toaster! Buckethead likes his Pop Tarts hot, dammit!