Adam Vinatieri makes a terrific scapegoat these days.
The Indianapolis Colts fan base has its collective blood boiling over the 46-year-old’s missed field goal near the end of the fourth quarter last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The kick certainly would have given the Colts the lead, but would it have won the game? That’s an open question.
When Vinatieri’s badly shanked attempt landed in the front row of the bleachers behind the end zone, there was still 1:11 remaining on the game clock, and the Steelers held one timeout.
Indianapolis struggled with discipline throughout the game, and Pittsburgh had recently marched to the 7-yard line on just two plays – a 40-yard bomb from quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington that beat rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin followed by a pass interference penalty against fellow rookie corner Marvell Tell.
If Vinatieri’s kick had been good, the Colts’ lead would have been just 27-26 and the Steelers would have needed only a field goal to win.
That’s why I wasn’t a fan of head coach Frank Reich’s approach to the final drive. With a first down at the 31-yard line, Indianapolis ran the ball three straight times. The last came on third-and-1, and Pittsburgh jumped the gap like it knew the play call.
That resulted in a 3-yard loss and set up the ill-fated 43-yard attempt.
A more aggressive approach to picking up the first down would have made the field-goal try shorter in one of the NFL’s most notoriously difficult stadiums for kickers. But it also would have bled more time off the clock.
The latter was arguably the more important factor, given the insane back-and-forth nature of the second half.
But the whole sequence illustrates a larger point.
Vinatieri’s kick might have won the game and erased a sloppy performance for the second straight week. But it was far from the sole factor in the loss.
Reich deserves a fair share of the blame for going against his nature and playing the final series so conservatively.
The Colts also made a cardinal sin for road teams in the pro game. They turned the ball over repeatedly.
Brian Hoyer’s interception on first down at the 20-yard line in the second quarter is the most egregious example. He locked onto tight end Jack Doyle – who caught a touchdown pass for a 10-3 lead on the previous series – and made a poor decision.
With safety Minah Fitzpatrick lurking in coverage, Hoyer later admitted he needed to throw the ball earlier or move on to a different target. Fitzpatrick made a leaping interception and returned it 96 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
Just a few minutes later, after Hoyer hit wide receiver Zach Pascal for a touchdown and a 16-10 lead (and Vinatieri’s low extra-point attempt was blocked), linebacker Darius Leonard was the fourth man into the scrum on a tackle and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Instead of ending the half, the flag extended the drive and Chris Boswell made a field goal that sliced Indianapolis’ lead in half just before intermission.
Later, with the Colts rallying in the third quarter, wide receiver Chester Rogers muffed a free kick following a safety and the Steelers recovered deep in Indianapolis territory. That led to three more points, bringing the total gifted to Pittsburgh on unforced errors to 13.
In a game the Colts lost by two.
So be as angry as you like with Vinatieri. He’s missed 10 kicks in eight games, including five extra points, and is far from beyond reproach.
But don’t let the kicker’s struggles blind you to other foibles.
Indianapolis has flashed its potential with wins over AFC contenders Kansas City and Houston in a three-week span. But it has also betrayed its youth with unforced errors in avoidable losses against the Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Steelers.
The team remains capable of championship contention at its best. But it needs to consistently get out of its own way to reach its full potential.