Patriots Will Be OK Without Them
Remember Nov. 30, 2003? The New England Patriots were in the RCA dome, fending off a late onslaught by the Indianapolis Colts. New England had jumped out to an early 17-3 lead, stunning the home crowd, the network announcers, the Colts. The Pats played almost a perfect half of football on the home field against their biggest recent nemesis.
Over the course of the second half, Indy took two steps forward, one step back, slowly creeping back into the game. It was typical Patriots of the early glory years: Win by 3, no matter who you're playing or what the mid-game situation is.
That game, New England actually won by 4, and it came down to one play. Remember? Fourteen seconds left on the clock. Colts driving down to the one-yard line. Pats defense up against it and tiring. Fourth down. The next play would decide the game and, ultimately, home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Patriots already had stopped Edgerrin James on first and second down. Then Peyton Manning tried to surprise everyone by throwing to Aaron Moorehead, who was jammed at the line of scrimmage. Incomplete.
Adam Vinatieri has been deified in New England, but has Willie McGinest been a bigger contributor lately?
Just about everyone I've ever spoken to was expecting Manning to throw to Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark. But Manning handed off to James again. There was a gaping hole in the line, and James was heading for it.
But coming through that hole from the defensive side was Willie McGinest, and he buried James a yard short of the line of scrimmage. The Pats won the biggest non-playoff game of the year.
What about the Wild Card game against Jacksonville this past January? The Patriots moved the ball at will and scored a pile of points. Meanwhile, the defense shut down the Jaguars completely. Smothered them.
There was one guy who did more smothering than anybody. That guy was Willie McGinest. McGinest broke two NFL playoff sack records in that game: four in a single game, and 16 in a career. And if not for McGinest's Big Time play, that game may have been a lot closer.
When I think about it, McGinest has played really great the last few years. I think there have been more games in which he's had a big impact than not. And that's a far cry from the unspeakable years between the Bill Parcells and the Bill Belichick years. I was Head Advocate for giving Willie a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
I was even on the anti-McGinest committee on Feb. 3, 2002, when McGinest was called for holding Marshall Faulk coming out the backfield, negating a Tebucky Jones fumble return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI. (I wasn't a big fan of Jones either, and I might've started liking him, but McGinest [almost] ruined everything.)
There were many heroes that day: Tom Brady, J.R. Redmond, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Roman Phifer. Heck, even Antowain Smith had a good game. But the guy immortalized, a guy who had already been deified two games earlier, was Adam Vinatieri.
You know what? That may have been the last time Vinatieri really outshone McGinest. While McGinest continued to improve right through last year, Vinatieri's gleam has gotten progressively duller. Kicking fewer field goals and missing more of them, Vinatieri has even been called upon to pooch punt (a la the aforementioned Jaguars) or give way to punter Josh Miller altogether, and in situations that would have been entrusted to Vinatieri's accuracy a couple years ago.
Vinatieri has been merely human the last few years. While he's made a few game-winning kicks, none have been under particularly adverse weather conditions, extreme pressure or anything else you'd consider extraordinary. In fact, he missed the one really important under pressure kick last year.
The Pats and Denver Broncos headed into the fourth quarter in the Divisional Playoffs. Despite being outplayed, Denver led 17-6 under slight more than questionable circumstances. But New England was still moving the ball at will, and as long as they kept within striking distance, we were all confident we'd have the proper outcome. This team has thrived on adversity.
A fast and furious Patriots drive -- hey, they didn't have all day -- stalled at the Bronco 25. In came Automatic Adam. A field goal would put them within a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
The snap was good. The hold was good.
But Adam Vinatieri missed!
It almost seemed liked it was too much to bear. With everything that led up to that moment, it was the final straw. The defense faltered, Denver went up 24-6, and that was the end of 2005.
Sure, plenty of other players made mistakes in that game. But most of those mistakes weren't on otherwise "routine" plays, and those players are generally involved in a lot more than a handful of plays per game.
This was a critical moment, and they guy we had counted on to perform in those moments had clearly become less reliable in those moments. He, unfortunately, has become a player you don't make the highest paid at his position.
McGinest has been reunited with former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, now head coach in Cleveland. Fortuntately, the Patriots don't have to worry about Crennel or McGinest this season.
McGinest, on the other hand, and after much introspection, was really tough to watch leave town. He looks like he has some good years ahead, and he'll be a boon to old friend Romeo Crennel and his Cleveland Brown teammates.
Vinatieri will probably do very well indoors for a few years, but I guarantee he won't enjoy kicking at places like New England, Pittsburgh and Denver -- places he's likely to need to make some big playoff kicks if he wants to help Manning get to a Super Bowl. Not only will he not like it, it will be more difficult for him as he loses the "advantage" of consistently practicing in poor conditions.
Belichick and Scott Pioli have made a couple efforts to bring in replacements for Vinatieri. A lot of us think we know what to expect from Martin Gramatica, whose performance rapidly deteriorated after a couple injuries and has since spent a year out of football. Few of us have any idea what to expect from fourth-round draft pick Stephen Gostkowski, though he was 10-for-10 from 40 yards and beyond (3-for-3 from beyond 50) last year in college.
But little has been done to outright replace McGinest. There's been much discussion about covering his loss, but talk is cheap. Unfortunately, the price of keeping McGinest or Vinatieri was not.
I truly hate to see either one of them go, despite my much earlier opinion of McGinest. I also think the Patriots will be just fine without ... Vinatieri. McGinest? That depends. Any injury on the defensive line or in the linebacking corps will expose that potential weakness.
Last season showed that it take a lot to bring me to panic, and it probably takes much more than that to make Belichick and his coaches and other player personnel flinch. But it really, really bugs me, like an itch on the inside of my skull.
The good news is New England isn't playing Cleveland this year, and it's unlikely the Browns are playoff bound for another couple years anyway, so we won't have to bear the burden of weeks of speculation leading up to a Patriots-Browns showdown and what impact McGinest will have. We can safely watch from afar, for now.
But Vinatieri will return to Foxboro midseason, Sunday night, Nov. 5, Week 8. Hard to imagine he'd get the Johnny Damon treatment, but you never know. New England is famous for short memories, and 2001 (and even 2003) is a long time ago. And, like Damon, Vinatieri is wearing the last jersey you'd want to see him in. And he wanted to go there more than the Patriots wanted him to leave. He was definitely seeking "greener" pastures. It will be interesting.
It comes to mind that I've never heard the adage that says "Placekicking wins championships." But I don't think anyone will deny, especially these days, that it doesn't hurt, either. Still, it's defense that more often than not carries the day. And with that, I'll miss you most of all, Willie Big Mac.