- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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The last time we saw Mike Vanderjagt in the spotlight, he was lining up a pressure-packed 46-yard field goal. With a large national audience watching, Vanderjagt rifled the ball cleanly between the goalposts.
What -- that's not how you remember it?
On this occasion his holder wasn't the Colts' Hunter Smith, but David Letterman, a Hoosier born and raised, and a hopeless Indianapolis fan. This was back in January in a segment taped on 53rd Street outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. It was a "Late Night" send-up of Vanderjagt's painful miss four days earlier against Pittsburgh. With Indianapolis trailing the Steelers 21-18, Vanderjagt's kick boomed wide right with 18 seconds left. Pittsburgh escaped overtime and went on to win the Super Bowl.
"All the Steeler fans on the left side of the stadium, they all blew at the same time," Vanderjagt told Letterman.
It was, not surprisingly, Vanderjagt's last kick after eight seasons with the Colts.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Vanderjagt said Wednesday from the Dallas Cowboys' facility in Irving, Texas. "I wasn't saying it was a joke that I missed, I was really taking responsibility for missing a field goal I should have made. Like Dave said, I make that kick 99 times out of 100. I just missed the wrong one at the wrong time."
Vanderjagt is absolutely, certifiably the most accurate field goal kicker in the history of the National Football League. His success rate (.8745) is nearly four percentage points better than the second-best kicker, Phil Dawson of the Browns.
And yet, when Vanderjagt's career epitaph is written, two words will loom larger than all others: Idiot Kicker.
This is, of course, because Vanderjagt vented after the Colts' 2002 season ended with a 41-0 playoff loss to the New York Jets. He told a Canadian cable sports network -- perhaps correctly -- that quarterback Peyton Manning and head coach Tony Dungy needed to show more fire. Manning responded in an interview during the Pro Bowl, describing Vanderjagt as "our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."
"I don't know how to put it into words," Vanderjagt said. "People say I'm controversial. I don't think a 10-second interview from five years ago should [determine your legacy]. I just learned from that. You can't say things you're not supposed to say."
Vanderjagt laughed into his cell phone. "It's just the way the media wants to portray me," he said. "It's just a label. Hundreds of guys in the NFL have had run-ins with the law, and those things don't get repeated as much."
Vanderjagt plays for the Cowboys now, but with the daily soap opera that is Terrell Owens, you might have missed it. The 36-year-old kicker signed a three-year contract that, with incentives, could be worth $6 million.
The Cowboys are 3-2 and Vanderjagt has made six of his seven field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder. Oh, and he's even kicking off for the first time in years. He scored 10 points in last Sunday's victory over the Texans. After some early issues with head coach Bill Parcells, life is good for Vanderjagt.
"Yeah," Vanderjagt said, "things are going well."
Wielding Big Feat
There was a time, not so long ago, when kickers were outcasts in the NFL. They were undersized, finesse-oriented specialists in a smash-mouth man's game. Kickers, even within the context of a team, weren't considered real football players.
But coaches have long known that special teams can determine the outcome of just as many games as offense or defense. Consider the recent results of Week 6, where, appropriately, six games hinged on the performance of placekickers:
• The Cardinals' Neil Rackers, who set an NFL record last season by kicking 40 of 42 field goals, missed a 41-yard field goal with 53 seconds left. Arizona -- which once led by 20 points -- lost to the Chicago Bears 24-23.
• Seattle's Josh Brown kicked a 54-yard field goal as time expired to give the Seahawks a 30-28 victory over the Rams.
• The Saints' John Carney kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired, giving New Orleans a dramatic 27-24 victory over the Eagles.
• Jason Hanson's 29-yard field goal was the difference in Detroit's first victory of the season, a 20-17 win over Buffalo.
No wonder they're paying kickers like CEOs. The Colts, who passed on Vanderjagt in the offseason, signed the Patriots' three-time Super Bowl champion Adam Vinatieri to a contract that featured a signing bonus of $3.5 million and an average salary of $2.5 million over the next three years. The Vikings signed Packers placekicker Ryan Longwell to a five-year contract worth $10 million and three weeks ago the San Diego Chargers locked up Nate Kaeding -- beginning only his third NFL season -- for five years with a $12.2 million deal, $3.5 million of it guaranteed.
"It gives you the kind of security you look for," Kaeding said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
Pity the Ravens' kicker Matt Stover. He is the third-most accurate field goal kicker ever, but two years before the kicker feeding frenzy he signed a five-year deal worth just more than $1 million annually -- about half of what the current market for elite kickers bears. With the 2006 NFL salary cap at $102 million and 53 players on each roster, you can argue that -- based on their impact -- kickers are still underpaid.
"The devil's advocate will say we don't really work a whole lot," Vanderjagt said. "You know, we stand around for an hour and 45 minutes out of a two-hour practice. But we get paid to make plays on Sunday. Field goals are definitely deciding more games and more and more teams are realizing that.
"I've been talking to [Denver's Jason] Elam and Adam [Vinatieri], saying we need to raise the bar and take care of each other. Internally, we need to get more credit and more money because we decide games.
Vanderjagt, the epitome of a free spirit, was destined to run afoul of Parcells. Predictably, he did, but that flew under the radar of Owens' steady stream of skirmishes with the Cowboys.
"Our Idiot Kicker is arrogant, cocky," said Charlie Waters, who played safety in Dallas for a dozen seasons and is the team's color analyst for radio broadcasts. "He doesn't have a big rapport with Parcells. Parcells, he loves to figure players out, find out where their hot buttons out.
"He said pretty early on, 'I can't figure this guy out.' I think he feels the same way about Terrell."
A Few Kicks Away
While bringing in Owens is believed to be the idea of owner Jerry Jones, it was probably Parcells who signed off on signing Vanderjagt. Parcells, like his most visible disciple Bill Belichick, always has paid close attention to special teams. He went through three kickers last season -- Billy Cundiff, Jose Cortez and Shaun Suisham -- and they cost the Cowboys at least three games.
When Cundiff was injured in training camp, Dallas was forced to keep Cortez, who missed a 41-yard field goal attempt that would have reversed a 14-13 loss to the Redskins in Week 2. Against the Seahawks, Cortez missed a fourth-quarter try of 29 yards wide left and the Cowboys wound up losing 13-10. Cortez was released after seven games, but Cundiff missed a 34-yarder that would have broken a 21-all tie with Denver in the Thanksgiving game, a contest the Broncos won in overtime -- by a field goal. Cundiff was cut before the final game and Suisham missed a 47-yard field goal in a loss to the Rams.
The Giants won the NFC East with an 11-5 record and the Redskins, 10-6, also made the playoffs. Dallas was 9-7; winning just two of those games would have put them in the playoffs.
Enter Vanderjagt, who is as decorated as a placekicker can be. He is one of only four placekickers to go an entire season without missing a field goal, going 37-for-37 in 2003 with the Colts. That was part of his NFL-record 41 consecutive field goal run. Vanderjagt is the Colts' all-time leading scorer, with 995 points and has scored 100 points in each of his first eight seasons. He also has 11 game-winning field goals in the last 15 seconds of a game.
Vanderjagt, who is keenly aware of his worth, can recite most of these statistics.
After spending that kind of money, Parcells was hoping that Vanderjagt would handle kickoffs, requiring only one roster spot for a kicker. But a groin injury in training camp forced Parcells to keep Suisham on the team. In the final preseason game, Vanderjagt returned -- and in overtime against the Vikings promptly missed field goals from 33 and 32 yards. Some believed Parcells might cut Vanderjagt on the spot.
"It wasn't the greatest preseason I ever had," Vanderjagt said. "People fail to realize that I don't kick a lot in the offseason. I use the preseason to get ready and don't peak until September. Coach Parcells is a show-me kind of guy and that's where the problem was."
Vanderjagt said he has made concessions to age, actually taking 10 minutes to warm up his lower body by doing stretching exercises with a trainer.
"I used to walk out there," he said, "and touch my toes a few times."
Raul Allegre understands the wrath Parcells can bring down on a kicker. He was the Giants' placekicker from 1986-91 and the team's leading scorer when they won 17 of 19 games, culminated by Super Bowl XXI.
"I would come out in practice a half-hour before the team stuff and he'd be out there watching me," said Allegre from his office in Austin, Texas, where he serves as a color analyst for ESPN International. "He could tell whether I was in a groove or not. He had special teams coaches, but he was definitely running the show. If he doesn't like what he sees, he's not afraid to do it again until you get it right.
"I think a kicker can be worth at least five games in a season. Especially for teams that play lots of close games. The Colts, a year ago, were blowing out everybody. My theory is that Vanderjagt missed that field goal against Pittsburgh because hadn't been in that situation all year long."
Waters, who was the Cowboys' holder for 10 of his 12 seasons, has an intimate understanding of kickers.
"I know what its like to work with idiot [expletive deleted] kickers," he said, laughing "They'll drive you nuts. Kickers they are absolute characters. They are loaded with way too much stuff in their brains. They think too much. They have way too much free time.
"You know what? Mike missed one kick [from 26 yards] for us in the Tennessee game. It opened up door and messed up the momentum a little bit. The question is, can he make them in the clutch?"
This question remains unanswered. Vanderjagt has not played a pivotal role in any of the Cowboys' five games. Still, he isn't making waves in the media and his kickoffs have been better than expected. In his six kicks from the Cowboys' 30 last Sunday, the average was 62 yards, or to the Houston 8-yard-line.
"We kicked directionally a couple of times, which takes a few yards off," Vanderjagt noted. "Some of those balls traveled 65 yards. I think I hit the ball pretty well; those kicks were NFL-quality. That's all I can ask of myself."
Vanderjagt could maintain his lead as the league's most accurate kicker through the end of his career. For one thing, he has a comfortable margin over Browns' kicker Dawson. For another: He enjoyed the indoor safety and comfort of the Colts' RCA Dome and Texas Stadium, though it has an opening in the roof, keeps most of nature's elements out.
Vanderjagt says he is happy in his working environment, which is something he hasn't experienced in some time.
"To this day, I have not received any verbal thrashings for missing field goals," he said. "When I met Coach Parcells for the first time, he said, 'I don't want to screw you up. I'm going to let you do your own thing.' I wasn't pushing the panic button.
"I keep telling him, 'You're the head coach and you've got a lot on your mind. The field goal kicker shouldn't be one of them.'"
Thirty minutes after a lengthy phone interview, the phone rang again.
"Yeah," he said, "it's Mike Vanderjagt.
"Hey, I just wanted to mention that my field goal percentage is actually better outside than it is inside. There's a perception that I'm more of an indoor kicker. It might be just half a point, but you should point out that I'm better outside."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Thanks to T.O., he doesn't get the headlines in Dallas but Mike Vanderjagt is still the same confident, cocky kicker.