INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Frank Reich’s confidence in Adam Vinatieri hasn’t wavered despite some obvious hiccups by the greatest kicker in NFL history, and that was never more evident than in the final minute and a half Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Normally aggressive with his play calling, Reich went conservative with his Indianapolis Colts trailing 13-12 and facing a first-and-10 at the Denver 34. After Jacoby Brissett’s run-pass option to the right resulted in a 1-yard sack by Von Miller, Reich dialed up innocent runs by Marlon Mack.
Reich was putting everything – absolutely everything – on Vinatieri’s ability to knock down a 51-yard field goal.
Fifty. One. Game on the line. Make it or else.
“I knew we were inside of 55 yards,’’ Reich said. “I knew that was money for Adam. I have all the confidence in the world in Adam (that) he can make that.
“We had a shot to win it and that’s all we wanted there at the end.’’
Vinatieri came through. Again. He ended an otherwise unsightly performance – personally and collectively – with a thing of beauty. His 51-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining lifted the Colts to a 15-13 victory over Denver in his 200th game with the franchise.
“Obviously it’s always nicer if it’s a little closer,’’ Vinatieri said with a smile, “but we hit those in practice all the time. As long as you go out there and hit a clean ball and do everything right, distance really isn’t that big of an issue.’’
During pre-game warm-ups, he was comfortable hitting from the “upper-50s’’ in both directions.
As Vinatieri prepared to trot onto the field for his game-winning attempt, one thought briefly entered his mind.
You need to make this thing.
He could have been fretting over earlier flubs. He pulled a 45-yarder wide right on the Colts’ opening drive – former Colts’ special teams coordinator Tom McMahon surprised him by having a defender jump through his protection – and missed a fourth PAT of the season. The latter already is a career high for a season.
Dwelling on failure isn’t an option.
“You’d better not,’’ Vinatieri said. “You’ve got to think, ‘Hey, what have I got to do to hit a clean ball and make it go where it’s supposed to go?’ The thing is re-focus on the things that help you do your job. You can’t sit there and mentally go back and forth.
“You just have to clear your mind.’’
You just have to block out the noise. That apparently was the case after Vinatieri missed the PAT.
Reich approached his kicker.
“He came running off and (I told him), ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. Shake that one off because you’re going to win this game for us,’’’ he said, sharing his conversation with Vinatieri. “Came down to it.’’
Did Vinatieri recall that conversation?
“Not right off hand, to be honest with you,’’ he said. “He probably did. If he said he did, I’m sure he did.
“I try to put everything behind me one way or the other, good or bad, and forget about it. You just concentrate on the next one in front of you.’’
It was the 29th game-winning kick of his 24-year career, and 11th in 14 seasons in Indy.
“He’s the GOAT,’’ T.Y. Hilton said. “He’s the GOAT for a reason. Our job is to get him down there in perfect position and he came through.’’
Safety Malik Hooker is in his third season, but still 23. He was roughly five months old when Vinatieri made his debut with the New England Patriots in Sept. 1996.
“Man, that’s the GOAT. That’s Adam Vinatieri,’’ he said. “I’ve been watching him since I was young. He’s a role model for me. I was a Colts fan growing up. Just to be able to witness this greatness he gives us every day, it’s just special to me.
“To me, I don’t care if Adam misses 30 field goals. I know when the game’s on the line, it’s going it.’’
The 51-yarder did precisely that, and it served as atonement for a couple of earlier misses. His up-and-down day included nailing 55- and 45-yard field goals, but missing a 45-yard attempt and his fourth PAT of the season.
For history buffs, Vinatieri converted a pair of 50-plus field goals in a game for a fourth time, and, at 46, is the oldest player to do so. Of course, he also was the oldest in 2017 and 2016 when he drilled two 50-yarders.
But again, Sunday was a reminder that this hasn’t been a normal Adam Vinatieri season.
The missed field goal and PAT rekindled thoughts of his first two games. In the season-opening overtime loss to the Chargers in Los Angeles, he missed 46- and 29-yard field goals along with a PAT. In the week 2 win at Tennessee, Vinatieri misfired on two more PATs.
No one has used it as an excuse, but Vinatieri has been dealing with an injury to his left leg.
The early stumbles convinced general manager Chris Ballard to put six kickers through workouts.
Through it all, Reich’s confidence never wavered.
“It’s 100 percent on his track record,’’ he said. “It’s 100 percent talking to him every day. I’m not just looking at the numbers or evaluating the times on the kicks or how far missed here and there.
“You look a guy in the eye (and) you know this is the greatest kicker of all time. I see what he does every day in practice. Our team has so much belief and confidence in him.’’
So much confidence that instead of being more aggressive on offense and getting into position for maybe a 40- or 45-yard attempt, everyone was OK with a 51-yard attempt to win it.
“It’s huge for me, it really is,’ Vinatieri said of Reich’s confidence. “Not trying to get any closer, just running the clock down and saying we’re in range. That says a lot right there . . . having the trust.’’
Brissett’s thoughts as he traded places on the field with Vinatieri?
“‘We’re about to win the game,’’ he said. “I don’t think that’s conservative. That’s just smart.’’
Vinatieri had a pretty good idea he had come through – again – once he did his part of the snap-hold-kick process.
“Felt realy good, yeah,’’ he said. “It’s not always a guarantee, but that one felt really smooth.
“Usually when your motion is smooth and you have good contact on the ball, 99 percent of the time it goes where it’s supposed to go.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.