Early in his rookie season, Adam Vinatieri wasn’t sure there would be a second season after New England Patriots' coach Bill Parcells informed him he was “week-to-week” because of his inconsistent place kicking. Twenty four years later, Vinatieri seems destined to have his bust enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for exactly the opposite reason.
“Adam Vinatieri is the greatest kicker of all-time who made the greatest kick of all-time in the 2001 divisional playoffs,’’ said Parcells acolyte and future Hall-of-Fame head coach Bill Belichick upon learning Vinatieri was finally retiring 1,248 weeks later than Parcells thought it might happen.
After 24 NFL seasons in which he scored a record 2,673 points and made a record 599 field goals, Vinatieri announced he had gotten all the kicks that were possible out of his leg. The two teams he had played for, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, certainly got a kick out of having him around.
In his 10 seasons in New England, Vinatieri went to four Super Bowls, won three and delivered last-second field goals to win two. A measure of Vinatieri’s knack for the dramatic is that neither of those landmark field goals is considered his most memorable. That honor is reserved for a tumbling, wind-blasted 45-yard field goal through a blizzard that sent a divisional playoff game against the Raiders into overtime.
That kick was delivered through what Patriots’ pay-by-play announcer Gil Santos called at the time “a maelstrom.” That was a bit of a mischaracterization since this was not a kick through a swirling sea. But no one would argue that the ball had to cut through a severe storm so wild it was difficult to see-- be it out on television or in the stands -- exactly what was going on or how far Vinatieri was from the goalposts.
As things turned out, what was going on was the birth of a football dynasty courtesy of one man’s powerful instep.
Not long thereafter, Vinatieri would win the game with a far shorter kick and two weeks later found himself standing 48 yards from the crossbar in the climate controlled New Orleans Superdome with the clock winding down to zero in Super Bowl XXXVI.
No wind. No snow. No problem. Vinatieri calmly rifled the ball through the uprights as the clock struck 0:00 on the biggest upset since Joe Namath’s Jets won Super Bowl III.
The Patriots had entered the game as 14 ½-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams, who were supposed to be the NFL’s next great dynasty. Instead it turned out to be the Patriots’ era, more than a little on the strength of Vinatieri’s accurate foot.
Two years later he would do it again in Super Bowl XXXVIII, delivering a 40-yard field goal with just four seconds left to play that broke a 29-29 tie against the Carolina Panthers. No other kicker in NFL history has twice won Super Bowls with last-second kicks.
After 10 seasons in New England, Vinatieri left when Belichick refused to pay him market value, believing that injuries had begun to limit Vinatieri’s reliability. Belichick would come to rue that day as Vinatieri went on to play 14 seasons with the Colts, twice reaching the Super Bowl (but not being active for Super Bowl XLIV due to injury). By then he had won his fourth Super Bowl ring four years earlier, scoring 11 of the Colts' points in a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in a driving rainstorm. Vinatieri made three of four field-goal attempts despite the soggy conditions, missing only a 36-yarder just before halftime.
By the time Vinatieri’s leg gave out before the 2020 season began, he had broken Morten Andersen’s NFL record for points while also setting records for most field goal attempts (715), most field goals made (599), most games played (397) and most consecutive field goals made (44 in a row). His 21 100-point seasons broke the previous record of 16. He is the only kicker in NFL history to score over 1,000 career points on two different teams. He made 29 game-winning kicks in his career, including an NFL-record 10 such kicks in overtime.
No kicker has ever been as productive in the post-season, either. Vinatieri scored 238 post-season points and was 56 of 69 on field goals. All three are NFL playoff records.
“His consistency, mental toughness and performance under pressure were legendary,’’ Belichick said. “I am honored to have coached Adam, going all the way back to his rookie year in 1996 and through some of the most special moments in Patriots' and league history. Adam is in the rarest of echelon of athletes whose career accomplishments may never be matched.”
He was named an All-Pro three times, went to three Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL’s Centennial Class selected a year ago as part of the 100th anniversary of the NFL. Yet none of that means his road to Canton will be a smooth one or that he is destined to become the first first-ballot Hall-of-Fame kicker when he becomes eligible for enshrinement in 2025.
Only two pure place kickers, Andersen and Jan Stenerud, and one punter, Ray Guy, have ever been enshrined in Canton. There has long been a bias against such specialists, some voters arguing that someone who is part of only a handful of plays each season cannot equate to the role played by full-time positional players. Andersen, for example, was named to TWO All-Decade teams, yet was not elected until his fourth time as a finalist.
Try and sell the argument against a kicker like Vinatieri to all the coaches who ended up in the unemployment office because of the errant toe or instep of their kickers. They know not only the value of a reliable kicker but also how few have ever approached Vinatieri’s clutch performances. To those who benefitted from his accuracy and reliability under pressure, there is no doubt where Adam Vinatieri belongs.
“When you look up 'clutch' in the dictionary it should have your picture,” former Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady wrote on Instagram after Vinatieri announced his retirement. “An incredible teammate with an incredible work ethic. Honored to have played with the GOAT.”
From one GOAT to another, Adam Vinatieri’s place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame seems as secure as one of his kicks with the game on the line. Time will tell if the Hall of Fame voters are as reliable and as accurate as Adam Vinatieri.