As always, Vinatieri will play it straight

Struggles haven't shaken confidence

By Michael Smith
Globe Staff / January 9, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- It wasn't all that long ago that the Patriots were the only team in the league whose best player was its kicker. Now, after the worst season of his career, which happened to coincide with the best season in franchise history, Adam Vinatieri, he of three unforgettable field goals the last time New England was in the postseason, has become something of a forgotten man. You could even argue that Vinatieri has lost his undisputed best-in-the-league belt to Indianapolis's Mike Vanderjagt.

Maybe there's more good fortune awaiting Vinatieri in pro football's second season. The first one was rough from the start, as 2003 began with Vinatieri's 110-game scoring streak coming to end in Buffalo. A year after converting a league-high 90 percent of his field goals and earning his first Pro Bowl selection, he missed nine field goal attempts during the regular season (out of 34), the most he's missed in a season, and tied for the third-most missed field goals in the league. His .735 success rate was easily the worst of his career and the third-lowest among full-time kickers in the AFC. Vinatieri began the year as the fifth-most accurate placekicker in league history. He ended it 10th.

Vinatieri had a couple of other successful runs end, as well. His streak of 33 consecutive made field goals from 40 yards and closer ended Oct. 5 against Tennessee, New England's opponent tomorrow night in an AFC divisional playoff at Gillette Stadium. He missed two field goals in that first meeting with the Titans, giving him three misses in succession for just the second time in his career.

He went an inexplicable 9 for 17 from 30 yards and beyond for the year. On Nov. 23 at Houston, Vinatieri missed for the first time in his career indoors after making 30 straight. He also hit his only game-winner of the season that day, the first time since '97 he won "only" one game with a field goal in the closing moments.

He did have his moments, however, such as accounting for all of the Patriots' 9 points in an Oct. 26 home win over the Browns and making a key 46-yarder before halftime at Denver Nov. 3.

Is that being picky? Probably. But we're talking about the only kicker to win a Super Bowl on the game's final play, one who made perhaps the most difficult kick in history, 45 yards through a blizzard in the '01 divisional playoffs against Oakland. He's set the standard pretty high. He's the Tiger Woods of placekickers.

"That's OK," Vinatieri said yesterday. "I hope people expect me to make things. I expect it of myself."

Vinatieri doesn't just look like a "real" football player, he thinks like one. To him his season was a success because the Patriots won 14 games. "[There's] room for improvement," he acknowledged. "We've had some interesting things happen throughout the course of the year. As long as our team wins. [Bill] Parcells said statistics are for losers. I like that saying, because as long as we continue to win, that's ultimately the most important thing."

Vinatieri's struggles haven't been all his fault. He went a week without his friend and holder, punter Ken Walter, who was released then re-signed. His long-time long snapper, Lonie Paxton, was lost for the season to a knee injury in Week 14. Paxton's replacement, Sean McDermott, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in his only game. Brian Kinchen handles the snapping duties now.

Kinchen is impressed by the way the kicker has handled the transition. "There's a lot of kickers who are very finicky about snaps and holds and stuff," Kinchen said. "Adam's not like that. If it's on the tee, he's going to hit it."

Vinatieri's accuracy rate has taken a hit this season, and there's no doubt the poor condition (which means poor footing) of his home field is partly to blame, along with the unpredictable winds that blow through Gillette Stadium. He missed six of 20 field-goal attempts at Gillette this year -- vs. 11 of 14 on the road -- including a 24-yarder that hit the left upright against Buffalo two weeks ago. But Vinatieri is in the business of making kicks, not excuses.

"It doesn't matter what [the conditions] are like, you're expected to put them through," he said. "It makes it a little more difficult, but the good guys find a way to get it done."

The league did something about what was left of the turf at Gillette, ordering the team to re-sod for the playoffs. The Patriots have practiced on the new surface the past two days. "The field felt good," Vinatieri said. "I don't think the field is really going to play that much of a factor one way or another. It's in good shape."

Based on Vinatieri's postseason track record, so will the Patriots if any of their upcoming games come down to his right foot.

"He's probably got the most respect for a kicker out of any I've ever met," said tight end Christian Fauria, who blocks for Vinatieri's field goals. "Or he's getting the most respect out of me, maybe I should put it that way.

"That's the most comfortable I'm feeling, when he's back there. I don't care who's going to the Pro Bowl or how many kicks they haven't missed, he's still the guy."

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