INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The reaction of the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd and signal from the officials under the goalposts – arms stretched to the roof – told the story of Adam Vinatieri’s latest game-winning field goal attempt.
They were late to the party celebrating the Indianapolis Colts’ 26-23 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Before the roar of the fans and “It’s good!’’ motion, Rigoberto Sanchez knew Vinatieri’s 51-yard field goal with 1 minute, 38 seconds remaining in overtime Sunday was true.
“I know when it’s good because we’ve been practicing a few months now,’’ said Sanchez, Vinatieri’s first-year holder. “You can hear a good hit. You can hear that boom. He’s done it a million times.
“When it’s a good hit, you know it.’’
After squandering a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and side-stepping peril in overtime, the Colts found themselves in position to escape with a critical early-season victory.
They called on Vinatieri. Again.
The NFL’s oldest active player at 44, he capped a four-field goal afternoon by drilling the 51-yarder. It was the 27th game-winning kick of his 22-year career and NFL-record 10th in overtime.
A byproduct of Vinatieri’s latest heroics was being named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Wednesday.
The weekly award is hardly groundbreaking; it’s the 17th time Vinatieri has been recognized.
However, it’s the first time he’s done so with his current sidekicks.
Sanchez, an undrafted rookie punter out of Miami, had never held for placements. Ever.
Luke Rhodes, an inside linebacker by trade, had only dabbled in long-snapping before making the positional switch in late August.
Vinatieri’s routine was shaken during the offseason when punter/holder Pat McAfee retired and long-snapper Matt Overton was released. It appeared their replacements were free agent Jeff Locke, the new punter/holder, and Thomas Hennessy, an undrafted rookie but an accomplished longsnapper.
Then, Aug. 28. Locke was released and Hennessy was traded to the New York Jets.
“That may have surprised a few people, me a little bit as well,’’ Vinatieri said at the time.’’
Seven weeks later, the new trio has found its comfort zone. Vinatieri calls his new cohorts “Rigo and Rambo.”
“We’ve got two guys that are working their butts off,’’ he said. “It’s good now. We’ve become much more consistent with our operation.
“There’s 11 guys on the field at any given time. We all have to do our job well. If one little something happens across the board, things can happen.’’
Sanchez has emerged as one of the NFL’s top punters. His 45.5 gross average ranks a modest 17th, but his 44.2 net ranks 6th. Opponents have returned just six of his punts for a 21 yards and been forced to make 10 fair catches.
As a holder, he’s still learning.
“It’s been all about practice,’’ Sanchez said. “It’s been repetition after repetition with my snapper and obviously Vinny, too. You grind through it.
“I’m getting more comfortable day by day. I try to ask questions about little things. Little things always matter.’’
What matters is Vinatieri can’t do what he does until Rhodes delivers a sharp, accurate snap and Sanchez gives him a spot-on placement.
“The more you practice, the easier it gets,’’ Sanchez said. “Me and Luke are doing our best to make him comfortable back there so he doesn’t have to worry about anything else but kicking the ball.’’
Vinatieri continues to defy Father Time. He’s converted 9-of-10 field-goal attempts, including two 50-plus attempts against the 49ers.
Since 2013, Vinatieri has converted 126-of-139 attempts (90.6). On attempts of at least 50 yards, he’s 20-of-25 (80 percent).