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Vinatieri shunned Patriots

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy was perusing the NFL Telex in his office one spring morning, only half paying attention to the information scrolling across the screen -- until the news that free agent kicker Adam Vinatieri was planning on visiting the Green Bay Packers came across.

``I grabbed my guys and said, `Why is Adam Vinatieri visiting other teams?' " Dungy recalled this week. ``I asked them, `Do you think he's serious about this? Shouldn't we be contacting him?' "

A flurry of phone calls, including one with Vinatieri's new agent, Gary Uberstine, confirmed the surprising development: Vinatieri, the New England Patriots' Super Bowl hero and all-time leading scorer, was shopping his services.

``When the Colts called, I told my agent, `Let's not screw around,' " said Vinatieri, in his first extensive comments regarding his departure from New England. ``I told him, `If Indy is interested, let's get this done.' "

Within a matter of days, Vinatieri, who nailed 20 game-winning kicks during his tenure with the Patriots, including a 48-yard field goal with no time left to beat St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI and a 41-yard field goal with four seconds to go to beat Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII, had switched uniforms, leaving New England scrambling for a kicker and the Colts replacing the most accurate foot in the NFL (Mike Vanderjagt) with the most clutch foot in the game (Vinatieri).

At a press conference March 23 introducing him to the Colts media, Vinatieri did not offer particulars of how he landed in Indy. Earlier this week here at the Rose-Hulman Institute, where the Colts train, Vinatieri confirmed he did not give the Patriots the chance to match Indianapolis's offer, and explained how he came to leave the only franchise he had ever played for.

``Everybody knows I had a great run in New England," Vinatieri said. ``I enjoyed my experience there, but this is a business.

``The Patriots clearly expressed to me that it was a business by the decisions they made. So I had to examine my options."

Vinatieri said he became concerned about his long-term future in New England as far back as the end of 2004, a year in which he nailed 93.9 percent of his field goals (31 of 33) and 100 percent of his PATs (48 for 48) in the regular season, then was a perfect 5 for 5 in field goals and 10 for 10 in PATs in the playoffs.

``I saw it coming," Vinatieri said. ``I had a real nice season [in 2004], but the negotiations for a new contract were not going the way we thought they would. I don't know . . . I told my agent [Jonathan Hurst], `I don't need to know the day-to-day details. Call me if they offer me something decent.' They ended up franchising me.

``I understand the business. I'm not naive. But [2004] was a good time to get a long-term deal done. I wish they had."

He's not the only one. Owner Robert Kraft said yesterday Vinatieri's decision to leave remains personally disappointing to him.

``To this moment, I'm very sad he is not part of this team," Kraft said. ``He'll always be a permanent part of the great legacy of the New England Patriots. But this is a business.

``Adam had to do what was right for him personally. I understand that. And I have great confidence that our football staff always does things that will put us in the best position to win future football games."

Vinatieri's numbers were not as impressive last season as in previous years. He connected on 80 percent of his field goals (20 for 25), missed one PAT (40 for 41), and had a kick blocked. According to team sources, the Patriots crunched his statistics and projected further drop-off as he got older (Vinatieri will be 34 in December) and continued to kick in one of the more challenging stadiums in the league. Gillette Stadium is consistently named the most difficult place to kick by opponents because of inclement weather, a field that is difficult to preserve, and a wind that is daunting and unpredictable.

The 2006 version of Pro Football Prospectus, using its own formula that factors in kickoffs, field goals, weather adjustments, and yards of field position, did not list Vinatieri among its top 10 kickers from 2005. (Neil Rackers of Arizona was the top-ranked kicker. )

The Patriots were comfortable with how Vinatieri was being compensated, noting Vinatieri's 2005 base salary, $2.5 million, was tops in the league. The kicker countered that while Jeff Wilkins of the Rams ($1.22 million) and David Akers of the Eagles ($2.29 million) had smaller base salaries, their total salaries, including signing bonuses and additional incentives, earned Wilkins $4.37 million and Akers $3.34 million in 2005.

In mid-March, with negotiations stalled and his frustration building, Vinatieri fired Hurst and hired the more aggressive Uberstine, who negotiated a free agent deal for Willie McGinest in Cleveland.

``A lot of teams had the misconception of, `Adam Vinatieri isn't going anywhere,' " Vinatieri said. ``It was a problem.

``That's why I switched agents. Once I did that, people started saying, `I guess he really is willing to listen.' People needed to know I was serious about seeing what was out there. Once teams truly believed I might be available, the phone started ringing off the hook."

Indianapolis president Bill Polian was initially skeptical when he learned Vinatieri wanted to talk with the Colts.

``I was very surprised Adam was looking at other teams," Polian said. ``When I talked with his agent, I made one thing very clear. I like Mr. Kraft and Scott [Pioli], but I was not interested in being a stalking horse for the New England Patriots. I wasn't interested in driving up the price for them. But the agent told me, `It's over with the Patriots.'

``That's when we got very interested."

Polian said his club recognized Vinatieri's wish for guaranteed money, and made sure the first offer would satisfy both parties.

``We're not usually big players in free agency," Polian said. ``We prefer to re-sign our own players. But if you are going to go after a free agent, you can't low-ball players. That defeats the purpose.

``We had a good understanding of what the market was, and what we'd have to pay for the position, and we made an offer. Once the agent communicated to us this was not a ruse to get a few more bucks out of New England, we got things done very quickly.

``The final negotiations were done within a matter of 24 hours."

Vinatieri had grown increasingly excited about the possibility of playing for a contender like the Colts, particularly because he'd be kicking inside the RCA Dome, which Polian estimates will add ``three years to his career -- at least." Vinatieri is 11 for 11 in field goals on Indy's home field, and has hit 37 of 41 lifetime in domes. (All four misses have come in Houston's Reliant Stadium).

Although the Colts were ``head and shoulders" above the other suitors in terms of what they offered, Vinatieri said he still felt a pang after signing the five-year, $12 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

``It was an extremely emotional day," he said. ``We were in Florida when the news hit I was leaving the Patriots, and we started hearing the reactions from the fans up in New England. My wife was following it on the Internet, and she was bawling. The fans were so great. They said such nice things. We loved it there."

Vinatieri said he has no regrets about not giving the Patriots a chance to counter the offer.

``The Patriots had plenty of chances to sign me," he said. ``All that day, when I was negotiating with Indianapolis, I still was in contact with the Patriots. But I didn't share with them what teams were bidding with me, or for how much. I was a free agent. That's what free agency is all about.

``They had so many chances to sign me. They had my whole franchise year [in 2004], and this past season, and the early part of the offseason.

``They chose to do what they did. There's no animosity on my part. I love the Kraft family. Bill Belichick is a great coach. I'll miss my buddies who are still in that locker room. I hated to leave, but when it's a business, sometimes you have to make tough decisions. They could have kept me. They didn't."

Although Vinatieri and the Patriots continue to insist their dealings were without rancor, it was hardly a warm and fuzzy departure for such a high-profile star and clutch performer. In his first public comments on how Vinatieri got away, Belichick answered, ``It's a longer story than it's worth telling, and it doesn't make any difference. He's not here."

Vinatieri, meanwhile, chose not to notify the Patriots when he reached terms with the Colts.

``I never did contact anyone," Vinatieri said. ``I think Scott Pioli saw it on some league transmission.

``They [the Patriots] were a little shocked with how things turned out, but I don't really understand why. Again, they had their opportunities."

Vinatieri, meanwhile, has positioned himself nicely for the remainder of his career, aligning himself with a prolific quarterback (Peyton Manning) who leads an explosive offense, affording a kicker who has a legitimate chance at the Hall of Fame an opportunity to enrich his statistics. Factor in his escape from the windy, frigid conditions that often come with kicking for the Patriots, and there is every reason to believe Vinatieri will be more productive than ever.

``Kicking in the dome was a big, big pro, but not the only deciding factor," Vinatieri said. ``I'm not going to lie to you. No wind and no rain sounds pretty good. But I still want to go outside and kick a lot to prepare for away games, like the one in Foxborough [Nov. 5]."

While the Colts have their kicking game settled, the Patriots continue to audition veteran Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski of Memphis. ``He's going to be a good one," Polian said of Gostkowski. ``If we hadn't signed Adam, we probably would have drafted him."

Although Indiana's media has been thirsty for details of his past life as a three-time Super Bowl champion, Vinatieri said he has purposely limited his references to his time in New England.

``It was a great chapter in my life, but I've moved on," Vinatieri. ``There will always be a special place in my heart for the Patriots and the fans, I won't deny that. But it's disrespectful to my current team to be in that mind-set.

``I'm a Colts fan now."

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