Cowboys' new kicker heats up when it gets cold
The stunning move this week by Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, in booting big-money kicker Mike Vanderjagt to the curb and replacing him with journeyman veteran Martin Gramatica, is certainly a high-stakes gamble.
And how chilling the results turn out to be might be determined by how well Gramatica, who has attempted only one field goal since 2004, performs in the coldest and most cold-hearted part of the schedule.
Reputations are often made and broken for all players, but especially for kickers, in December. In a league where nearly 25 percent of the games are annually determined by three points or less, every kick is big. But because of the playoff ramifications, those kicks are magnified in December, and the pressure is going to be even more intense on Gramatica, because of the man he replaced and because the Cowboys are a resurgent team with the potential to go deep into the postseason.
There is a track record, however, to suggest that Gramatica might stand up well to the pressure. Gramatica will get a chance to add to his late-season resume on Sunday, when the Cowboys face the New York Giants in a huge NFC East matchup at Giants Stadium.
In his seven-year career, Gramatica has converted 38 of 47 field goals in regular-season games played in December or January. That 80.9 percent conversion rate is actually higher than Gramatica's success rate, 76.7 percent, in all regular-season games, where he has made 138 of 180 kicks. In outdoor games in December and January, he has converted 34 of 40 field goals, an 85.0 percent mark.
Even in cold-weather contests, Gramatica, a native of Argentina who spent most of his career kicking for the Tampa Bay Bucs, has been surprisingly good. Gramatica has converted 13 of 17 December field goal tries in what would be considered cold-weather cities. That includes a five-for-five performance at Soldier Field in Chicago on Dec. 29, 2002. The temperature at kickoff that day was 38 degrees, with a wind-chill factor of 33 degrees, and dropped into the low-30s by the fourth quarter.
His success rate in cold-weather cities, 76.4 percent, is only slightly below Gramatica's conversion rate in all games, so that is encouraging.
Just as encouraging, apparently, has been Gramatica's work in practice this week. Those who have watched the practices say that Gramatica, who converted a 20-yard field goal on Oct. 1 while filling in for injured Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, has been near-perfect.
"We've given him a lot of kicks," Parcells said. "He's working hard."
The real test will come on Sunday, however, at always-tricky Giants Stadium. Although the forecast calls for a high of 48 degrees, with a light breeze at about 7 mph, the circling winds at Giants Stadium can be devilish. And in his seven seasons in the league, somewhat surprisingly, Gramatica has never kicked there.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .