The two kickers with the longest streaks of consecutive field goals in NFL history accomplished their perfection with the Indianapolis Colts.
Before Adam Vinatieri arrived in Indianapolis, there was Mike Vanderjagt. If Vinatieri makes his next field-goal attempt, he will tie Vanderjagt’s league record of 42 in a row set 12 years ago.
A comparison of the two specialists offers an intriguing contrast in styles and legacies.
Vanderjagt reveled in being a cocky Canadian, never shy about expressing an opinion. When opponents or fans tried to get in his head with trash talk, his amused response was to rub two fingers together to assure he’s “money.”
When Vanderjagt was once asked what actor would play him in a movie, he said, “Tom Hanks.” The two-time Academy Award winner didn’t look anything like Vanderjagt. Why him? “Because he’s the best, isn’t he?” Vanderjagt explained.
When that story was shared Wednesday with Vinatieri, he didn’t hide his amusement.
“Awesome. Great comment. Hilarious,” he said.
Vinatieri, a polar opposite, takes ego out of the equation. The NFL’s oldest player at 43 is just as confident, but won’t brag about himself in any way. He’s uncomfortable when someone suggests he’s the greatest clutch kicker in league history, a man destined to be inducted one day into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as just the second player who was only a kicker. The other is Jan Stenerud.
Therein lies the other obvious difference. Vanderjagt is remembered as a good kicker who missed the two most important field-goal attempts of his career, both resulting in playoff losses. Vinatieri is known as “Mr. Clutch” because he won two Super Bowls on game-winning field goals in the final seconds while with the New England Patriots.
Vanderjagt never won a Super Bowl ring. Vinatieri has four, three with the Patriots and one with the Colts. Vinatieri is probably the only player whose NFL keepsakes include jerseys signed by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and former Colts passer Peyton Manning.
“Although we do the same job, I would say both of us were pretty good at what we did, just different,” Vinatieri said of Vanderjagt. “Mike was very, very good.”
Where that viewpoint of Vinatieri is universally accepted, some might suggest otherwise about Vanderjagt because his outspoken reputation often overshadowed his statistics. From 1998 to 2006, Vanderjagt had a field-goal percentage of 86.466, which at the time of his retirement ranked No. 1 on the all-time list and still stands fifth today. Vinatieri’s 84.528 career percentage ranks 12th.
“I played against him a number of years,” Vinatieri said. “At one point, the Colts and Patriots were in the same conference and you played ’em twice a year. I got to know him pretty well. Great kicker. He did a lot of really good things for this organization and the NFL. I guess I just passed Gary Anderson (in consecutive field goals), and he was a hell of a kicker as well. Just to be in the same conversation with some of these guys, to put some numbers up like that, it’s an honor.”
But it’s not a distinction to which he gives much thought. Now is not the time.
“Individual accolades or records are fun to think about after the season or after your career or after whenever,” Vinatieri said. “For me right now, I want to put the next one through because it helps our team put points on the board and hopefully it swings the momentum and gives us a lead or whatever the situation is.”
He praises the other members of the Colts’ field-goal unit, the unselfish guys up front who get run over by players trying to block each kick. He commends holder Pat McAfee and long snapper Matt Overton, both Pro Bowl selections, for doing their jobs so well.
“I don’t take him for granted,” McAfee said. “It’s one of those things where I’m just trying not to mess up. Matt Overton and I understand that. You’re talking about a master of a craft. The dude is just the G.O.A.T.”
As in Greatest Of All Time, but don’t repeat the phrase to Vinatieri. He rolls his eyes when hearing McAfee utter the words, which the punter/holder has repeated for years in expressing admiration for his humble teammate.
“At some point, I’ll miss,” Vinatieri said. “Everybody does. Hopefully it’s weeks or months away.”
When Vanderjagt missed his final kick with the Colts, his career was never the same. Colts fans cringe to this day about Jan. 15, 2006, at the RCA Dome. Vanderjagt’s 46-yard attempt in the final seconds sailed wide right, which doesn’t quite accurately describe how badly the kick missed. It wasn’t even close. Vanderjagt ripped off his helmet with both hands and slammed it to the ground, the equipment bouncing about 10 yards away as the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated a 21-18 upset of the top-seeded Colts in a memorable AFC Divisional playoff game.
It was the only time Vanderjagt had missed a playoff kick at home in his career, but he wasn’t re-signed. Meanwhile in New England, where coach Bill Belichick once paid Vinatieri the ultimate compliment by calling the kicker “a football player,” the Patriots had decided not to offer Vinatieri a new contract. Perhaps the Patriots were just playing the percentages considering Vinatieri was getting up there in years. The veteran was 33 after his 10th NFL season, and he was worthy of a top salary for a player at his position.
The Colts were willing to pay a reported $3.5 million bonus in addition to $7.5 million for three seasons. Who knew Vinatieri could sustain his level of consistency for another dozen years? He ranks third on the career scoring list with 2,315 points, trailing just Gary Anderson (2,434) and Morten Andersen (2,544). His 519 career field goals also rank third behind Anderson’s 538 and Andersen’s 565. Because he’s signed through 2017, Vinatieri could eclipse both if he stays healthy.
What’s most impressive about Vinatieri’s streak of 41 consecutive field goals is that 9 have been from 50 yards or longer. Vanderjagt had only one 50-yard field goal in his streak.
“You do your job day in and day out, and if you do it well you get to be around the next week,” Vinatieri said, reminding of his simplified focus. “For me, you stack a lot of individual days together into a career. I don’t look ahead. I don’t look behind.
“I don’t ever try to get too far ahead of the game because I’m living for here and now. A year from now, two years, three years, five years, however long it is, I’ll be able to look back upon my career and see what I did well and what I didn’t do as well as I would have liked to. There will be time for that later on.”
Vanderjagt’s streak ended in the 2004 season opener, when he missed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide right in the final minute of a 27-24 loss at New England. Vinatieri was on the other sideline and had kicked 2 field goals for the Patriots.
In 2006, Vanderjagt was cut by Dallas after 10 games in which he made a career-low 72.2 percent of his kicks. The end to his NFL career was surprisingly abrupt, considering he had converted 80 of 87 field goals in his last three seasons with the Colts including 37 of 37 in 2003.
After his perfect 2003 season ended with a playoff loss, Vanderjagt provided another lasting memory when he questioned the intensity of Manning and head coach Tony Dungy during a television appearance. Manning responded during a Pro Bowl sideline interview by referring to Vanderjagt as an “idiot kicker” who got “liquored up.”
Vinatieri is mindful of a kicker’s place on a football team; that’s to make headlines for kicking field goals, not making controversial comments.
“As a kicker, I’m not the guy who is on the field much,” he said. “We get to put the icing on the cake. We don’t get to build the cake. Although I may be an older guy and a leader on the team and one of the captains, I like to let my actions speak instead of my words.”