Posted: Thursday January 19, 2006 3:16PM; Updated: Thursday January 19, 2006 3:16PM
Mike Vanderjagt couldn't get it done again this past Sunday.
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Of the many anxious moments to choose from in this season of 24, perhaps the funniest to date came about an hour and 15 minutes into Sunday night's premier. In it, a resurrected Jack Bauer had just finished laying waste to a coterie of terrorists, including one particularly knavish ne'er-do-well who, moments earlier, had assassinated a former president and set Jack up to take the fall. Having seen his fill of bloodshed, Derek, the squeamish son of Jack's love interest and unwitting passenger in this national security thrill ride, is hesitant to travel much farther with the suspect secret agent and desperate for a reunion with his mommy.
Seeing the need for a little tough love, Jack grabbed the brooding blond by the neck and slammed him against the tailgate of their newly stolen van. "Let's get something straight, kid," Jack growled. "The only reason you're still conscious is because I don't want to carry you."
It's the type of scene I could see playing out between Peyton Manning and Mike Vanderjagt inside the Colts lockerroom in the wake of their devastating AFC divisional loss to the Steelers. As Indianapolis neared defeat and the burden of another playoff loss settled atop Manning's shoulders, a fumble recovery gave the Colts one last chance to even the score. Channeling his inner Tom Brady, Manning marched the Colts to the Steelers' 28, leaving 22 seconds on the clock for Vanderjagt to channel his inner Adam Vinatieri.
What happened next left a whole mess of Hoosiers with their mouths agape. "I hit it good and looked up and it wasn't even close," Vanderjagt told reporters after missing an attempt from 46 yards. "It was very much a surprise where the ball ended up. I would have bet a lot of money that ball was going in."
Why doubt him? Vanderjagt, at 87.5 percent, is the NFL's most accurate kicker ever. He missed twice in 25 attempts all season and had been perfect on all 37 of his attempts two years earlier. He's also proven himself a capable late-game performer in the regular season, going 12 for 15 with a chance to win or force overtime in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.
That said, you could argue that Vanderjagt hasn't made a kick of consequence in almost two years, when a pair of onsides kicks and a schtoinked game-winner from 29 yards out helped Indianapolis to a 38-35 regular-season triumph over Tampa Bay that would go down as one of the great comebacks in history.
Since then, though, the Colts haven't had much need for Vanderjagt's services, the success of their potent offense leaving the kicker with few opportunities to perform in pressure-packed situations. He didn't attempt a game-winner (or one to tie) in '05 and went into last week's game 0 for 1 in the playoffs.
That lack of experience and success could be to blame for Vanderjagt's cold foot. Forget for a moment that he was kicking for overtime -- what are the variables? There's no driving wind. (He was playing indoors and hadn't missed on his hometurf all season.) No steady snowfall. No stinging cold. No dubious play ruled correctly upon further review.
Here was Vandy's chance to seize the moment, to step up and be accounted for, to seize the leadership role he has long coveted. Like Derek, Vanderjagt would need reminding of his station. Three years ago he skewed both Manning and coach Tony Dungy on Canadian television for lacking fire in their bellies after a dispassionate effort against the Jets ended their season in a blowout. Manning was quick to put the kicker in his place, dismissing Vanderjagt as an idiot whose appetite for liquor matched a thirst for drama.
But who could blame Vanderjagt for confusing his role? Take away that scarlet letter K from in front of his name on the depth chart, and Vanderjagt takes on almost quarterback-like proportions: 6-foot-5, 211 pounds. Take away the frosted lobes, the frosted tips, the chromed out Hummer and pimped out walk, and you almost forget he's Canadian. His clothes alone threw Marcus Pollard for a loss. "Nobody dresses like him," the former Colts tight end told the Indianapolis Star. "He's just 'Mike.'"
Ever since he came into the league eight years ago, Vanderjagt has been on a quest to stake kickers to a higher stature in the lockerroom and in the game. Here was his chance to not only be the voice the unspoken position, but its face, to blast that kicker stereotype into oblivion. To do what Manning couldn't -- win (or at least tie) one when it counted.
So what did Vanderjagt do? He smacked it wide right. Way wide. Both benches could scarcely believe it. "He missed it," Manning mouthed from the sideline. "He missed it," mouthed Dungy. "He missed it!" howled Jerome Bettis in jubilation.
A play that could've cemented Vanderjagt as a legend threatens to sour the rest of his career. It could stand as the last image of the kicker (who is a free agent) in uniform for the Colts, the only team he has known since leaving the Canadian Football League nine years ago. And Manning, like the mercurial Jack, might not feel like carrying the weighty Vanderjagt much farther.
Vandy may well redeem himself in time, but who's to say when? His best chance came last Sunday. And he missed it.