logoby Dan Snapp

Tell me you didn’t think it. 

Tell me, as Adam Vinatieri’s unexpected (to put it mildly) 52-yard field goal sailed through the uprights Sunday night, you didn’t hear in your head the retired, red-nosed, paper-shuffling anchor with his most tiresome of bromides:

Why can’t we get players like that?

Fortunately, we did. In fact, the Patriots had their cake and ate it, too: they had Vinatieri for the bulk of his possibly Hall of Fame career, and then replaced him with somebody younger, cheaper, and – for the past two-and-a-half years, anyway – better. And remember, it’s not like the Patriots cut Vinatieri loose; his leaving was of his own choosing.

Like Larry Bird’s Indian Summer game against Portland in 1992, there was a nostalgic aspect to Vinatieri’s renewed vigor, even though it came at the Patriots’ expense. It was good to see the old man still had it in him.

But Vinatieri’s kick was the exception, not the rule. The 52-yarder was his first over 50 yards in two years (he had two over 50 in the 2006 playoffs), and he went all of the 2007 regular season without hitting anything over 40 yards before finally connecting on a 46-yarder against San Diego in the playoffs. And quite the irony that a good tailwind at Lucas Oil Stadium came to the aid of a man hoping a dome would extend his career.

Vinatieri’s time as an elite kicker is over. He had a glorious year in ’06 with the Colts, including a five field goal performance against the Ravens in the divisional round. But his average has dropped each year, as well as his range. At 35, he should be around for a while; it’s not unusual for a good kicker to play into his 40s, as Jan Stenerud and Gary Anderson did. But he’s no longer the Adamatic of old.

In the meantime, we have Stephen Gostkowski, who was recently named October’s Special Teams Player of the Month. He’s raised his average each season, from 76.9 percent in ’06 to a sterling 95 percent this year.  He showed he could hit the big kicks, like the game-winner against San Diego in the waning minutes of the ’06 divisional playoffs, or the two fourth quarter field goals against the Colts in the AFC championship. And of course, there’s the value of his kickoffs, with nearly as many touchbacks in eight games as he had all last season.

At the time of Vinatieri’s signing with the Colts, Peter King claimed Adam alone would be the reason for three more wins for the Colts, and ostensibly by extension, three more losses for the Patriots. Three more wins for the Colts would be a pretty mean feat, seeing as how they had just gone 14-2 the previous season. Let alone the ludicrous idea that a kicker, even one Canton-bound, could change two teams’ fortunes so dramatically.

The outcome? The Colts went 12-4. The Patriots, 10-6 in ’05, went 12-4.

There are a handful of personnel shortcomings since ’05 for which we could critique the Patriots. Replacing Vinatieri with Gostkowski isn’t one of them.