Only two full-time kickers in NFL history, Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen, have made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There is a serious case that could be made for Adam Vinatieri to be the third. Even setting aside his ridiculous longevity, he was (or is?) the ultimate clutch kicker, with the Patriots winning their first two Super Bowls thanks to his right foot.
Ironically, what may have been his finest NFL moment did not involve kicking at all.
Setting the stage for a Hall of Fame career
Adam Vinatieri’s NFL career did not get off to a hot start. In fact, it almost ended right after it began.
Vinatieri came into the NFL in 1996 as an undrafted free agent with the New England Patriots. He melted down in week two against the Buffalo Bills, when he missed three field goals in a game the Patriots lost by seven. According to sports talk show host Mike Francesa, head coach Bill Parcells was one missed field goal away from cutting Vinatieri after week three.
Two weeks later against the Jacksonville Jaguars, no. 4 proved his worth by booting five field goals, including the overtime game-winner. In total, he accounted for 16 of the Patriots’ 28 points that day, including one extra point. It was something Patriots fans would get used to in the future.
Adam Vinatieri makes the NFL’s most inexplicable tackle
Toward the end of the season, the Patriots took on the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys on the road. With 5:56 to go in the first quarter, New England held a 6-0 lead. After Vinatieri made his second field goal, he prepared to kick off to the Cowboys’ Herschel Walker.
You may be asking, “wait, Herschel Walker? I thought the Cowboys traded him?” Yes, they did. He passed through Minnesota and Philadelphia before landing back in Dallas for the 1996 season.
Walker took the kickoff from his 11-yard line and, with some blocks, raced toward an apparent touchdown. The only Patriot left who could stop Walker was the scrawny kicker, Vinatieri. And stop him he did, miraculously chasing down and tackling the return man all the way at the Patriots’ 18-yard line.
I don’t know how I did it. He is way faster than I am but that one day I just wasn’t going to let him get to the end zone. I just turned around and took off running. To my surprise, I just started getting a little bit closer and a little bit closer. About the 25-yard-line I guess I dove and caught him. He flipped around and threw the ball down and looked back and to his surprise, it was No. 4, slow kicker kind of thing. He was probably like, “How did that just happen?” That was probably my most athletic moment.Adam Vinatieri, as quoted by Radio.com
NBC’s color commentator, Randy Cross, said it best. “Closing speed! I’ve never used the term ‘closing speed’ for a kicker!”
Though the Patriots lost that game 12-6 to Dallas, they would eventually reach Super Bowl XXXI that year. After a Curtis Martin touchdown made it a one-score game, Vinatieri kicked off to Packers return ace Desmond Howard, who took the ball 99 yards. This time, Adam could not chase down the returner, and Howard’s touchdown sealed the Patriots’ fate.
When Vinatieri outshined Tom Brady
That being said, there is another contender for Vinatieri’s finest NFL moment. (And no, we’re not talking about either of those two Super Bowl-winning kicks or that kick through the snow against Oakland, because that would be too obvious.)
In November 2004, Vinatieri’s Patriots were on the road against the St. Louis Rams, the first time those two teams had met since Super Bowl 36 in January 2002. In that earlier game, the Patriots won thanks to Vinatieri’s leg. Nearly three years later in the rematch, Vinatieri made an impact in a very different way.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Patriots up 19-14, it looked as though they would attempt a chip-shot field goal. Instead, Vinatieri took a direct snap and threw to a wide-open Troy Brown for an easy four-yard touchdown. As a result, his career passing statistics are one-for-one for four yards and a touchdown, which gives him a nearly-perfect quarterback rating of 122.9. Beat that, Brady.