Adam Vinatieri's legacy as a player in New England is as secure as anyone's not named Tom Brady. He was that valuable to the franchise during his fabulous career.
Vinatieri's retirement last week sparked a lot of discussion on the kicking legend, with Bill Belichick ending his praise by stating in no uncertain terms the kicker belongs in the Hall of Fame.
It may very well wind up being a Hall of Famer career that almost never was. Vinatieri's ascension to the kicking throne was not smooth. He nearly lost his job on a couple of occasions during his time in Foxborough, and each time he responded to the challenge.
As a rookie in 1996, Vinatieri began his career by missing three field goals in a Week 2 loss in Buffalo. He missed another the following week in a blowout win, and was squarely in Bill Parcells' crosshairs when Jacksonville came to town for a Week 4 matchup having made just 3 of his first 7 attempts.
The Patriots blew a big lead against the Jags but ultimately prevailed thanks to Vinatieri's five field goals, the last serving as the overtime game-winner. Vinatieri connected on 19 of his 22 field goals the rest of the way and the rookie suddenly had a job. His consistency was a plus over the next few seasons but he would hit a crossroads again in 1999, during the final year of the Pete Carroll era.
Vinatieri missed three potential game-winners that season, the first a 32-yarder at Kansas City in a 17-16 loss, and the next two at home against Buffalo in a 13-10 overtime defeat. He went 1-for-4 in that Bills loss, including misses from 33 yards in the waning seconds and 44 yards in overtime. Those misses turned a potential 10-6 playoff team into an 8-8 also ran and help end Carroll's tenure in New England.
Belichick arrived the following year, and he was familiar with Vinatieri's struggles. In his second draft he took Owen Pochman, a kicker out of BYU, in the seventh round. A few years later, even after Vinatieri's legend had been established with some of the most clutch kicks in NFL history, Belichick brought Robbie Gould in to battle it out in training camp.
Through it all Vinatieri persevered and established himself as the gold standard when it came to making The Kick. Few have a track record more impressive than Vinatieri's with the game on the line, and it was fascinating listening to Belichick talk about one particular connection that doesn't generate nearly the attention the more-storied 2001 field goals receive.
"I think the Rams game was again a long kick, but I would say the Carolina kick, one of the things about that was just their rush and they had blocked a kick earlier in the game, they blocked a lot of kicks that year," Belichick said of the Super Bowl XXXVIII game-winner against the Panthers. "That's probably one of the all-time great field goal rush teams. Those guys were long, strong, explosive off the ball and were hard to block. And so, not only the kick, but the kick against a really good rush, having to get the ball up, I mean a bad kick there, that could easily have gone the other way. So, I think that was really probably one of the underrated kicks that Adam had, just because of the degree of difficulty on the other side of the ball."
Among the NFL records Vinatieri holds: most points (2,673), most field goals (599), most field goals attempted (715), most consecutive seasons scoring (24), most seasons with 100 points (21), most playoff field goals (56), most playoff points (238), oldest player to make a 50-yard field goal, make two 50-yarders in a game and make a 55-yarder (46), most points (49) and field goals (14) in single postseason, most Super Bowl field goals (7) and extra points (14), most overtime field goals (12), most consecutive field goals (44) and most playoff games by a kicker (32).
And of course there's no arguing against the greatest kick of all-time – the 45-yarder to tie the Snow Bowl against the Raiders that allowed the dynasty to begin. That's quite a Hall of Fame resume.
Last week we got our first chance to watch the Patriots at practice, albeit at a pace better-suited for a company picnic than an NFL team. But that didn't stop the instant opinions on rookie Mac Jones from flying around. Jones looked comfortable tossing his passes around the Gillette Stadium fields, most of which were short dump-offs to backs and tight ends with little to no defense in sight.
Still, the reaction to those routine high school throws was interesting as many cited the poise and intellect he displayed while doing so. Personally speaking, Jones looked much like all the other young quarterbacks who came to Foxborough before him. He had some trouble identifying defensive looks at times and at others seemed to handle those chores without a problem. But the bottom line is only the coaches know exactly what was supposed to happen on those plays, so drawing conclusions on the results is always dangerous business.
But that won't stop us all from trying – and the overreactions will be fun to parse through all summer.
Speaking of overreactions
Far more interesting than 5-yard dumps to Tyler Gaffney was some of the interaction between Jones and some of his teammates. Jones was celebrating with Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor as well as Hunter Henry, which I took as a positive sign for a rookie interacting with veterans so easily. I also felt Bourne talking about Jones' unexpected "swag" was interesting. Again, meaningless on the football-scale of things but worth noting nonetheless.
It's easy to fall in love with players in the spring. Watching gifted athletes fly around in shorts while wearing just helmets can deceive the best of us. Back in 2006 the first views of Laurence Maroney and especially Chad Jackson were eye-popping. Jackson had the look of a player who would be dominating for years to come. Two years later his career was all but over. Still, it was hard not to be impressed by Bourne and Agholor as they glided around the practice fields. Perhaps the Patriots lack of speed at receiver in recent seasons made their performances look more impressive, but it was refreshing to see some athleticism at the position – even if it's still the spring.
End is near
The Julio Jones saga is likely coming to a conclusion this week. The Falcons clearly intend to deal him and have been waiting for June 1 to do so for cap purposes. So, a trade will likely be announced sooner rather than later. I'd still love to see the Patriots make a bold move to bolster their receiving corps, and a second-round pick still appears to be enough to get it done. The $15.3 million guaranteed salary should not be an impediment to making it happen, but it looks like that might be the hurdle that needs to be overcome. It would be tough to watch an AFC foe – Tennessee, Indy, Baltimore -- acquire Jones for less than a first-round pick, but we should know soon.