Kick returner

The game wasn’t over yet, tied with a little less than two minutes left on the clock, but thousands of New England TVs powered off Sunday, the outcome inevitable.

No sooner had Denver’s Jason Elam pumped his fist after hitting a 49-yard field goal, to tie the Indianapolis Colts and Broncos at 31, every eye with a valid interest glanced at the game clock, which read 1:49. And that was it. The game was over.

Adam Vinatieri was going to win it. And everybody knew it.

I can’t guarantee it, but I’ll make the educated guess that this week will posses the most water cooler discussion about a kicker returning to face his former team in sports talk history. But there are kickers in the NFL and there are sports icons, no matter what the position they have played, individuals frozen in a moment that creeps to the front of any region’s sporting annals.

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Vinatieri’s 37-yard kick on Sunday gave the Colts a 34-31 win over the Broncos, a progression New England fans remember all too well, and that Colts fans are just getting used to with glee following the sudden inaccuracy last season of Mike Vanderjagt. Need a game-winning kick? Vinatieri. Need a game-winning kick in the highest of pressure situations? Vinatieri. Twice.
This was Vinatieri’s well-timed calling card to remind Patriots fans that he’d be back in their backyard Sunday night, as if you didn’t know, when he makes his return with the 7-0 Colts. While his former team hasn’t exactly missed him drastically (Stephen Gostkowski has had just nine field goal chances all season, five more than Vinatieri had just Sunday) this weekend could provide that crossroads a chance to materialize. If New England and Indy are playing a close game down to the wire that might come down to the kickers, well, which guy are you going to place your money on?
All bets are off, however, when it comes to what kind of greeting Vinatieri gets at a Sunday night-packed Gillette Stadium after jumping ship in the offseason to sign a five-year, $12 million contract with the Colts, with a $3.5 million signing bonus attached.
“It will be interesting to see,” Vinatieri told the Indy Star. “I think I’ll have a handful of friends at the game, so I’ll get a few cheers out there. I may have a few people who’ll give me a few claps at the beginning, then once it’s game time, we’ll see.
“Sports are sports. The reality of this day and age is, teams look in one direction and players look in another. I don’t think there’s any animosity. I know there’s none from me. . . . We’ll see what type of reception I get.”
This isn’t Johnny Damon, returning to a bloodthirsty Fenway Park after an offseason in which he embraced the Yankee culture with a fictitiousness that had New York fans even rolling their eyes. Damon returned to Boston with the Yankees last May to an environment that treated him as a traitor, signing with his former team’s rival, and then refusing to shut up about it for the next five months. After daring to boo him, Red Sox fans were put on a level with criminals and degenerates by certain sportswriters who bemoaned that Red Sox fans had forgotten what he had done for them in 2004. The unapologetic view said that the fans hadn’t forgotten, but they weren’t idiots either, not falling for Damon’s winter boasts of how it felt to be a “true Yankee” without having even laced up his cleats as of yet.
Besides that fact, there is a big difference when it comes to making money in the NFL as opposed to Major League Baseball. In football, if you’re not happy with a guy’s performance, you cut him loose, no worries to the checkbook. In baseball, well, look at Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, etc.
The non-guaranteed contract aside, the signing bonus in football becomes the extra karat that players seek. And in the case of Vinatieri, the $3.5 million is the portion of the contract that the Patriots refused to include. Time will still tell how that will end out working for them, but for a franchise welded into the team over individual concept, it was evident they weren’t going to do much different contract-wise for a kicker, no matter his place in sports history.
Tom Brady? Yes. Richard Seymour? You betcha, since they are arguably the top two players at their respective positions. Deion Branch, Vinatieri? They would have been welcomed back for sure, but not at a price in which you deny yourself fixing the sum parts of your team. Hence, perhaps why the Colts defense has seemingly regressed to where it was two years ago after a steady improvement in 2005.
That’s not to say the Patriots did the right thing in not breaking the bank for Vinatieri, just that they looked at the situation in a much different light than the rest of us. While the bulk of us cling to the memories of those two Super Bowl-winning kicks, the New England organization is like your average person living paycheck to paycheck. The last payment is gone, and while it netted some great things along the way (a Small Wonder lunchbox off eBay? Neat.), your main goal now is working toward that next one.
History doesn’t win another one. What you did to win the previous ones does.
Vinatieri though, he was the rock, and it’s not yet known how his departure is going to affect things. And while he says he doesn’t know what to expect when he steps on the turf Sunday, he tells Tom Curran of NBCSports.com differently.

“They’re going to boo you,” I predicted.
“Oh, man are they going to boo my ass,” he smiled knowingly.

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Not to start. But after the first of who knows how many field goals, guaranteed.
And if the Colts get the ball with less than two minutes in a close game, those boos will certainly lessen.
Everyone will have left already.

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