Cowboys Cut Vanderjagt, and a League Pauses
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When a National Football League team cuts a kicker, it usually isn't big news. But it was this week, when the Dallas Cowboys released veteran place-kicker Mike Vanderjagt.
Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us as he does most Fridays. Welcome back, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: And we're really calling on your expertise now because in addition to being a great expert on Scrabble, you spent December as a kicker in training camp with the Denver Broncos for a book that you're doing and it's been kind of an interesting season about kickers especially when the most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL, Vanderjagt, gets dropped by Bill Parcells, the coach of the Cowboys, who cut him two-thirds in the way of the season.
FATSIS: And on first place.
FATSIS: He had made 13 out of 18 field goals, an accuracy rate of 72 percent, that's well below the 87 percent that has made him the NFL's all-time leader. But three of his misses hit a upright, one was blocked. He's 36 but that's not necessarily old for a kicker. He had some minor injuries though in training camp. He also had some baggage.
SIEGEL: Yeah, he had been the kicker for the Indianapolis Colts, who missed a famous, famous field goal that cost the Colts a trip to the Super Bowl.
FATSIS: He did. And he was also dubbed: That idiot kicker by Peyton Manning, the quarterback in Indianapolis. Indianapolis then didn't resign him after that missed field goal. The best kickers are often are given time to play their way out of problems. The Cowboys didn't give him that opportunity.
SIEGEL: Historically, the perception of the kicker has been that of the out-of-place shrimp on a team full of giants. That's not really true anymore?
FATSIS: No, Vanderjagt is a big guy. And the physical part of kicking has definitely evolved up. Kickers and punters are much bigger on average - 6'3”, 6'4”. Some of them are 220, 230 pounds. But what wasn't changed entirely is the notion that kickers are interchangeable. They're the most disposable players in the NFL, which is already a culture of disposability.
When Dallas got burned last year with a bunch of missed field goals, they decided to give Vanderjagt, two and a half million signing bonus and another $800,000 or so in salary. No the team is quickly reverted to the old thinking that kickers aren't worth it. This week Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told a Dallas radio station that he'd never invest big in a kicker again.
SIEGEL: And as a chronicler of the picking game, you don't agree with that.
FATSIS: No, I think, it's just bad business. The most expensive kickers in the NFL rarely take up more than the average amount of space on a team's salary cap. Even though, they can have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of games. No position has evolved as much as the kicker. In the 1970s, kickers made fewer than 60 percent of their field goals. Today, they make around 80 percent.
And that brings me back to Vanderjagt, to replace him Dallas signed Martin Gramatica. Gramatica didn't play last year. He was beaten out in training camp in New England by a rookie this year. And he missed 40 percent of his field goals in 2003 and 2004. I hope the guy doesn't miss a kick, because I'm a kicker. But it does make me wonder about how some teams approach the position, which is more with hunches and emotions than real analysis.
SIEGEL: Meanwhile, the kicker for the Atlanta Falcons this year, Morten Andersen is 46.
FATSIS: He's simply - I laugh every time I hear it - he's the second oldest player in the NFL history behind George Blanda, the quarterback/kicker who played until he was 48. Andersen is a freak a nature. His leg strength and his leg speed haven't deteriorated. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago after the Falcons played in Baltimore. He told me he wants to keep playing until he's 50.
SIEGEL: But we should point out that if a kicker - say on a kickoff, if the kickoff is returned really well, the place-kicker just might have to tackle some guy.
FATSIS: All these guys are bigger now. And they can make tackles. Teams don't want them to because they don't want their $2 million Adam Vinatieris or Mike Vanderjagts getting hurt trying to stop a guy who's in all likelihood going to run right by him anyway. Jason Elam of the Broncos gave me some great advice. He said if I'm ever in a situation like that just get out of the way.
SIEGEL: Okay, Stefan. That's Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.
This is NPR, National Public Radio