HOUSTON - There are very few things in life that Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel is absolutely, positively certain about.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri is one of them.
”I was sure he’d make it,” said Vrabel, rubbing his son Tyler’s head in the afterglow of his team’s second Super Bowl victory in three years. “Adam is like Deion Sanders. If he ever messes up, you just know he’s going to make sure he’ll get the next one.
”It’s just unbelievable what he’s done. The guy is so deserving of whatever comes his way. He is the best clutch kicker ever, in the history of this league. When he was lining up for that kick, I couldn’t even see the goal post, there were so many flashbulbs going off. I would have needed a visor to kick it.”
Vinatieri won Super Bowl XXXVIII for the Patriots in the final seconds without wearing anything on his head. He did, however, put on longer spikes at halftime, after a recently sprayed field proved to be a little slicker than he’d like. He would never use that as an excuse for the unthinkable happening in the opening drive. The Patriots got into the habit of scoring the very first time they had the ball, and last night it appeared they would do the same against a stingy Carolina defense.
Quarterback Tom Brady coaxed his offensive unit down to the 18-yard line, and then it was the kicker’s turn. All Vinatieri had to do was line up and boot a 31-yard field goal, which is about as routine for him as lacing up his spikes. But as soon as he kicked it, he knew. Wide right.
”I don’t know,” mused Vinatieri. “That first one, probably I was a little excited. I probably was a little too fast.”
He had always been automatic, particularly during that magical Super Bowl season two years ago, when he kicked several game-winning field goals. The most famous play of his marvelous career - the kick in the snow to eliminate the Oakland Raiders - vaulted him to stardom. It didn’t hurt, of course, that when Super Bowl XXXVI ticked down to the final seconds, he lined up and calmly knocked a 48-yard field goal through the uprights to upend the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
And, so, we got used to expecting him to be perfect - or nearly so. Last year, when the team collectively experienced a Super letdown, Vinatieri was better than ever, successful on 90 percent (27 of 30) of his kicks. It was the highest percentage in the NFL, and as the Patriots staff looked to the future, it never occurred to them to worry about their kicker.
But this season was a trying one for Vinatieri. He struggled with back problems he wasn’t supposed to talk about. He struggled with a merry-go-round of snappers and holders, something he wasn’t supposed to talk about either. He is a team player, an eternal optimist, and he never - ever - let on to the hordes of media that tromped past his locker how frustrated he was at times. He converted only 25 of 34 field goals in the regular season. He - horrors! - actually missed an extra point.
He was able to wipe the numbers clean each week because he lives by the kicker’s mentality: whatever just happened, forget it.
”You don’t ever want to ever think about the last kick, good or bad,” Vinatieri said. “The only one you should ever care about is the one in front of you.”
So fine. Forget about missing that 31-yarder in the first quarter last night. Forget about the 36-yard attempt that was blocked by Carolina’s Shane Burton with six minutes left until halftime.
But wait a minute. Deion Sanders would never forget that. He’d dwell on them until he got himself good and ticked off, and marched back on the field to right his wrongs. He would seep in his own failure until he left himself no choice but to succeed the next time out.
”Well, OK, yeah,” Vinatieri acknowledged. “I’m as competitive as anybody. It would be like a receiver dropping the ball, and making sure he got the next one, or a defender blowing a coverage, and making a play the next time. I’m just glad my teammates have that kind of confidence in me.”
The kicker has a tricky role on a football team. He does a lot of waiting around, often feeling, as Vinatieri has confessed in the past, a bit disconnected from the team. But when your time comes, you become the most important player on the field. It is a responsibility that Vinatieri has never feared, only craved.
And so he waited, and hoped for another chance. When Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme’s 85-yard bomb to Muhsin Muhammad gave the Panthers a 22-21 lead with 6:53 left, Vinatieri began preparing for a role in the responding drive. That was not necessary when Tom Brady found Vrabel in the end zone. But there was Delhomme again, connecting with veteran Ricky Proehl, and the score was tied, 29-29.
Vinatieri looked up at the scoreboard, and smiled. There was 1:08 left on the clock.
”Even if you ever give us any time, look out,” he said.
His quarterback did what he does best: he managed the team down the field. Brady got the ball to the 23-yard line, leaving Vinatieri eight seconds and 41 yards to win it. As he ran onto the field, he surveyed Reliant Stadium, filled with 71,525 screaming fans, and he felt . . . nothing.
Nothing but calm.
”I had no doubt,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “I’ve seen him make kick after kick after kick after kick. How could anyone doubt him?”
As the ball sailed through the uprights, and Vinatieri was mobbed by his teammates (again), poised to be the Super Bowl hero (again), all the misses of a long, long season went poof, like the flashbulbs exploding around him.
He is the best clutch kicker in the business. Try and tell his teammates differently.
”It never gets old,” said Vinatieri, when asked how he felt. “It never gets old.”
Two Super Bowls. Two winning kicks. That’s something no kicker should ever forget.