‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’: A Tribute To Mike Vanderjagt

‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’: A Tribute To Mike Vanderjagt
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‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’ is a weekly column divised by yours truly, Greg Forbes. It’s aims are to provide in-depth analysis of all special teams play, career retrospectives, player interviews and knowledge on the latest in the world of the unit itself. 

Mike Vanderjagt is a household name who divides opinion better than Marmite. Some people love the guy, some hate him and some think he’s one of the most polarising characters in NFL history. Of course, the old saying goes that if people aren’t talking about you then you’re doing it wrong, and if that’s truly the case then Vanderjagt did it better than anyone else.

His career in football saw him rise to notoriety in the Canadian Football League and the National Football League, where he divided the masses in both organisations. So, why was Vanderjagt such a conflicting character? Well, first we must start at the beginning. 

The Legend Is Born

In 1988, Mike accepted an offer of a scholarship from Michigan State University, with the intention of starring as both a quarterback and placekicker. He decided to leave the school in favour of a greater chance of participation at Allan Hancock College, remaining there until 1991. Ahead of that year’s season opener, Vanderjagt joined West Virginia University, solely operating as the team’s punter/kicker. In his freshman campaign for the Mountaineers, he nailed 52 punts for 2040 yards, averaging 39.2 yards per attempt. The next season would serve as his last at the collegiate level and proved to be his best year of placekicking. That season, he converted 27 of 32 PAT’s, whilst he also contributed 15 makes on 20 field goal attempts. That production resulted in a 75.0% FG conversion rate. 

Whilst it hasn’t been outright stated, I believe that Vanderjagt’s rather turbulent collegiate career impacted his professional one immensely. As evidenced, he bounced around various colleges in the hopes of becoming a starter somewhere, anywhere, yet, that hampered his reputation as a reputable starter for an NFL franchise. Moreover, his statistical production didn’t warrant a selection in the 1993 NFL Draft in honesty, a time where special teams players were vastly under-appreciated. 

Canadian Football Fame 

As a result of the lack of interest in Mike’s talents, he headed back north to Canada, his hometown, where he was on the prowl for a professional suitor. That, of course, didn’t come easy, as he bounced around Canada’s premiere gridiron league for years. He made the 1993 Saskatchewan Roughriders roster, featuring in just 2 games as the team’s punter. In the hunt for extended playing time he hit the open market. That said, he only garnered tryouts for Toronto and Hamilton, but did not make a CFL roster in 1994. 

Third time lucky springs to mind in the case of Vanderjagt, who finally made the Toronto Argonauts roster in 1996. He served as both the punter and placekicker for the side, as he aided the Argos in grabbing the 1996 and 1997 Grey Cup. He produced a career-year in 1997, registering 190 points, boasting a field goal conversion rate of 76.7% and leading the league in punt yardage. For his incredible contributions, he was subsequently named a CFL All-Star, as well as a CFL EAST All-Star. 

Mike Vanderjagt sporting the jersey of his beloved Argos, wearing the now iconic ‘#13’. (Image courtesy of cfl.ca)

It comes as no surprise that following a stellar two-year career in Canada’s capital that attention was being paid to his talents. 

In the offseason of the 97’ campaign, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent. 

Calm, Cool & Collected – The Early Years

Upon his arrival in Indianapolis, Vanderjagt was thrusted into the first team roster. He concluded a very successful season personally, having converted 27 of 31 field goal attempts, which resulted in an 87.1% conversion rate. The Colts on the other hand, had just produced a replicated 3-13 season of yesteryear, in Peyton Manning’s rookie season no less. 

The following campaign, in 1999, Vanderjagt continued his fine form, in-fact he bettered it. He drilled 34 of 38 field goal attempts, producing a conversion rate of 87.1%. He also boasted a long field goal of 53-yards. In addition, the Colts’ 13-3 record cemented their status as the #1 seed in the AFC East. Unfortunately however, they were dismissed in the Divisional Round of the postseason, 19-16 by the Tennessee Titans.  

The Problems Begin Rushing In 

Remember when I said that Canada’s best kicker is often perceived as a divider of opinion? Well, that story is about to begin soon enough, bare with me. 

In the 2000 season, Vanderjagt was money on almost every attempt. He smashed 25 of 27 field goals through the uprights, whilst he upheld his streak of never missing a point after touchdown attempt in his first three seasons. The Colts finished the season with a 10-6 Win/Loss record, surfacing second in the East. Thus, they made it to the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, facing the Miami Dolphins. It was there, that Vanderjagt stole the headlines, as he converted a clutch 50-yard FG in the fourth quarter. That success was soon buried however, by his missed 49-yard attempt in overtime, which paved the way for the Dolphins to score on the ensuing possession, as they won the game 23-17. 

Whilst the heat may have been on the Canadian throughout the offseason, Mr. Manning took the pressure off by failing to lead his team to a positive record on the year in 2001. They concluded the season 6-10 on the year, finishing fourth in the East. Vanderjagt on the other hand, dealt with the task at hand, as he always did. That season he produced a career-low (at the time) 82.4% FG conversion rate, knocking 28 of 34 through the uprights. That said, he was deadly from the 50+ yard marker, converting 3 of 4 attempts. 

Never, Ever Insult Peyton Manning

So, this is where it gets REAL good. 

The 2002 campaign saw Vanderjagt convert a career-long 54-yard attempt. He also nailed 100% of his PAT’s, going 34/34 on the season. Oppositely however, he was rather woeful when converting field goals, having only made 23 of 31. Nevertheless, the Indianapolis Colts were red hot. They concluded the year 10-6, finishing second in the division. Yet Manning was insignificant again in the postseason, as the Colts were demolished embarrassingly by the New York Jets, 41-0. 

Manning’s inept ability to perform in the playoffs didn’t go unnoticed to say the least. Vanderjagt himself, under a new lucrative deal and full of confidence, took to Canadian Television to let loose.

“All week before the Jets game I’m like, ‘#18, we’re going to handle it, me and you, we’re going to win this game.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK.’” Said Mike, adding: “And I’m like, ‘Peyton, show some enthusiasm, you’re the quarterback and we need to win this game.’ I just don’t see it from him.” He then concluded the topic, hinting at the need for a fearsome locker room leader. “We need someone who is going to get in people’s faces and yell and scream”. 

Vanderjagt then idiotically continued to criticise his often reserved head coach Tony Dungy, before admitting his distress surrounding the Colts’ situation. “I’m not a real big Colts fan right now, unfortunately. I just don’t see us getting better” he said. 

Vanderjagt’s antics was headline news. The fact that a kicker (someone who wasn’t nearly as valued as an offensive or defensive player) was criticising his head coach and FRANCHISE quarterback didn’t sit well with anyone, let alone the Manning family. 

Whilst Manning was upset, he insisted he’d deal with the situation upon his return from the Pro Bowl. That silence, however, was broken after the microphone he was wearing picked up him saying the following: “Here we are. I’m out at my third Pro Bowl and we are talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off. What has the sports world come to…he has ruined kickers for life.” 

Both athletes apologised publicly, opting to sweep the issue under the carpet. That said, they probably should’ve rolled said carpet up and lit it on fire because this issue was far from over. 

WATCH: SB Nation created a fantastic mini-documentary on the pair’s astounding rivalry.

A Dynamite Year 

The 2003 campaign proved to be dynamite for the Colts’ kicker, both literally and metaphorically. Unbelievably, he concluded a wonderful season absolutely perfect in both PAT’s and FG attempts, as he converted 37 of 37 FG attempts, whilst making good on 46/46 PAT’s. His production resulted in a nomination to the 2003 Pro Bowl, as well as being named an All-Pro. More than anything though, his performances proved that he was more than just some “idiot kicker”.

His statistical production coincided with an added flair in the media. This was perhaps most evidenced by the front cover of ESPN’s magazine around mid-way of the 2003 NFL campaign. 

ESPN’s Magazine showcases Mike Vanderjagt to be more than just a kicker.

As evidenced, the magazine brandishes “butt kicker” over an image of Mike in his Colts gear. Inside of the magazine, Vanderjagt disproves Manning’s theory of him being a “drunk” kicker. “Call me an idiot kicker all you like. But when you say I’m liquored up, well, I was not drunk. I made those stupid comments all on my own.” Said Mike. 

Irrespective of the drama, Indianapolis, Like Vanderjagt, were absolutely fantastic in 2003. A now vastly improved Peyton Manning helped lead the Colts to a 12-4 W/L record, as they finished first in the South. A dominating performance against the Denver Broncos saw the Colts win 41-10 in the Wild Card Round. They then edged out the Kansas City Chiefs 38-31 in the Divisional Round, and looked prized to make a run for the Lombardi Trophy. In the AFC Championship game, Manning’s struggles continued when it mattered most. He committed 4 interceptions in the team’s 24-14 desecration at the hands of the New England Patriots. 

The Curtain Begins To Draw 

In 2004, the Indianapolis Colts were better than ever before. Peyton Manning was absolutely otherworldly, posting 4,557 yards and an NFL record of 49 passing touchdowns in the regular season, whilst registering an average passer rating of 121.1. His performances were pivotal in securing another 12-4 season, which captured first place in the South once more. 

Vanderjagt on the other hand, converted a career-low 20 field goals, this was due to a lack of opportunity more than anything else however, as he only had 25 attempts. Regardless, the season was progressing exquisitely, with the Colts dominating the Broncos 49-24 in the Wild Card Round. Well…it WAS going brilliantly, until the outspoken specialist undermined the Colts’ opposition ahead of the Divisional Round against the New England Patriots. 

“I think they’re not as good as the beginning of the year and not as good as last year…I think they’re ripe for the picking.” Vanderjagt exclaimed. Ironically, this came after he missed a potentially game-tying FG against the aforementioned franchise which could’ve helped grasp home field advantage from the Colts earlier in the season. His comments were instantly dismissed, and only provided added motivation for the Pats. Belichick and co. emerged victorious 20-3 in the end, with Mike’s sole FG accounting for all of the Colts’ points in the game. 

As the curtain was beginning to draw on one of the most controversial characters in the league, Vanderjagt had one more chance at the Super Bowl. This was due in large part to another dominant season from Manning, who with the help of his teammates, led the team to a career-best 14-2 season. With a first round bye, the Colts faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round. Whilst it proved to be an incredibly tight game, Vanderjagt had the opportunity to be a hero with .21 seconds on the clock remaining, as the Colts trailed by 3, 21-18. This moment provided one of the worst shanks in postseason, if not league, history, as Vanderjagt’s woeful 46-yard attempt missed wide right. 

WATCH: Vanderjagt’s worst miss in his career came at the WORST of times.

I’ll be honest, you won’t even believe the next part of this article. 

Shortly after the horrendous miss, he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, during which he was involved in a jovial scene which involved Vanderjagt converting a 46-yard field goal attempt with Letterman acting as the holder. Ultimately, this “bit” left a sour taste in the Colts’ owner’s mouth, who elected to sign 3x Super Bowl winner Adam Vinatieri in favour of extending Vanderjagt’s soon to expire contract. 

A Dallas Cowboy For…A Year 

Despite the Cowboys’ philosophy of avoiding paying premiums for special team players, they signed Vanderjagt to a three-year, $4.5M contract on March 23, 2006. 

In the 2006 campaign, he converted just 13 of 18 field goals, producing a career-worst FG conversion rate of 72.2%. Perhaps most famously, he missed 2/2 field goals against his former team, both wide right, which lead to an uproar within the Cowboys’ stadium. He was unceremoniously dumped by America’s Team shortly thereafter and replaced by Martín Gramática on November 22, 2006. 

The Colts on the other hand, would go on to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy that exact season. Their success was heavily linked to the transformation in the kicking department, as Adam Vinatieri did what he does best – excel under pressure. For Vanderjagt, the whole situation reeked of embarrassment, as his replacement did the one thing he could not. 

Just like that, one of the NFL’s most consistently accurate kickers’ career was officially over. But what legacy did he leave? 

Love Him? Hate Him? Respect Him. 

Upon extensively researching the career of Mike Vanderjagt, I don’t believe there’s truly a “correct” answer as to how he should be remembered. 

Statistically speaking, he was one of the most accurate kickers of all time. Moreover, he should most definitely be remembered as a crucial driving force in building a support network for players of his position, and for dedicating much of his time to improving the perception of kickers. 

Whilst I am aware of his crucial missed kicks, I don’t believe that should completely diminish his contributions to the league, the Colts and the position itself. 

So, I’ll say this: you don’t have to love him, you don’t have to hate him. You must, however, respect him. 

With Thanks To – cflapedia.com, sports-reference.com, nfl.com, wikipedia.com & Yahoo Sports (image). 

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