By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
In the last four seasons, the Redskins have lost 14 games by three points or less. So just admit it. Don't be ashamed. As soon as you saw the headline "Cowboys Release Vanderjagt," images of Redskins One danced into your brain. You imagined the Redskins' jet circling the Canadian home of shell-shocked Mike Vanderjagt. Bags of money with "Signing Bonus" scrawled on the outside were bombarding the kicker with the highest career field goal accuracy rate in NFL history.
After all, from 1998 through 2005, the Redskins attempted 224 field goals and made 158, an awful 70.5 percent rate. Vanderjagt made 217 field goals, or 59 more than Washington, with 87.5 percent accuracy. What could the Redskins have done with 177 more points?
Now go on and confess. You're dumbfounded. You can't believe that, after the Dallas Cowboys released the kicker, the Redskins have not thus far -- repeat, have not -- taken any action to sign him. In fact, team sources say they aren't interested. Instead, they signed another ex-Cowboy kicker, Shaun Suisham, who's attempted six kicks in his NFL career, for their practice squad, where he can lurk in case Nick Novak (5 for 10) continues to flounder.
Let's see, you can sign Suisham (pronounced "Swish 'em," as in basketball) or you can make a run at the 36-year-old Vanderjagt, a durable star who kicks off deep but, since missing a crucial kick for the Colts in January, has been in a slump. However, he hasn't fallen off the earth. He got released for going 13 for 18. Redskins kickers this season are 14 for 21.
Here is bitter irony indeed. The Redskins pay fortunes for free agent flops like Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, plus this season's class of underachievers whose names will mercifully go unmentioned. However, the one kind of free agent a team should always want -- a great kicker who is temporarily down on his luck -- they completely ignore. Ten times bitten, 11th time, shy? Too bad. The Redskins, you see, only bid for overvalued hot commodities. Value investors they aren't.
Just wait and see. Vanderjagt will be the free agent -- and a comparatively cheap one -- who got away. Somebody will sign him, this season or next. And he'll be a big success again. The history of NFL kickers over the last 25 years says that he'll probably have multiple excellent seasons ahead of him, with five to 10 more productive years.
Who says so? Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson, Matt Bahr, John Carney, Steve Christie, Al Del Greco, Nick Lowery and Eddie Murray, among others. All of them switched teams after 11 to 14 highly successful seasons in the NFL. All were close to Vanderjagt's age, if not older. All were gold to the teams that grabbed them. Andersen and Anderson, who each have more than 500 field goals, switched teams after 13 years in the league, yet played for at least 10 more years. That's t-e-n more years. Andersen has come out of retirement again this year. The list is endless. Pete Stoyanovich left Miami after seven years, then made 70 of 83 field goals in his first three years in K.C.
Once a fine kicker, always a fine kicker -- albeit with interludes of bad mechanics or lost confidence -- until he's too old to swing his leg. Kickers are like vampires. You have to drive a stake through their hearts to get rid of them once and for all.
If the Redskins don't pounce on Vanderjagt -- and there may still be time to bribe him to come to Washington -- they'll probably be haunted by him for years. Throughout their history, the Redskins have had one of the NFL's worst records for developing long-term kickers. In the last decade, a Scott Blanton or Cary Blanchard has been followed by a Brett Conway or James Tuthill.
Only Mark Moseley (12 years) has held the job for more than seven straight seasons. Since Chip Lohmiller left after '94, the only Redskin with as many as 27 field goals in a year was Murray, one of those kicker castoffs, like Vanderjagt.
Let's see, do you go with Novak and Suisham with little likelihood that John Hall, who's been hurt three years in a row, will be back? Or, with a 4-7 record, do you take a shot at getting Vanderjagt, hoping he'll emerge from beneath his black cloud and be a star again?
Of course, Vanderjagt has baggage. In 2003, Peyton Manning became furious at the Pro Bowl after Vanderjagt said the quarterback didn't show enough emotion. "We're talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off," Manning said. "The sad thing is, he's a good kicker. But he's an idiot."
Over the last dozen years there've been many Sundays when the Redskins wished they had an "idiot" like Vanderjagt with the game on the line. Sure, he missed a huge kick that might have ultimately kept the Colts out of the Super Bowl last season. Since then, he's looked like a lost soul in Dallas -- more Chuck Knoblauch than Mike Vanderjagt. With his Cowboys rolling behind Tony Romo, Bill Parcells can't risk trusting a kicker with an identity crisis. There is too much at stake.
But what do the Redskins have to lose? Their next five games, even if they play well, will probably have scores like the last two -- 20-17, 17-13. With Jason Campbell and a conservative game plan, the Redskins will need every field goal they can get to keep their remote playoff chances alive. What they need is a cocky guy who's capable of getting hot and kicking 15 of 16 field goals in December, including a couple of 52-yarders. Does that description sound like Novak, Suisham or Vanderjagt?
Unless the Redskins have inside information that Vanderjagt is a serial killer, they should be on this guy's trail right now. Washington has a pleasant enough locker room, perhaps too rich and complacent, if anything. Vanderjagt's reputation for having an obnoxious edge, even if it's true, might actually help. Besides, getting released teaches anybody some modesty.
The Redskins, especially owner Daniel Snyder, have been beaten up for years for desperation signings. They've perfected huge contracts to players who were never true stars or were washed up. Vanderjagt is none of these things. At 36, he isn't old. He's in a slump.
Vanderjagt may prefer to stay home with his family for the rest of this season, then try to come back as a free agent next year. Maybe the Redskins couldn't land him if they tried. But what player haven't the Redskins signed when they really wanted him? After all their comic signings of market darlings who flopped, why aren't the Redskins trying to sign a proven star when he's temporarily down on his luck? They should think Andersen and Anderson. Think of the games they have lost by three or fewer points since Vanderjagt came into the league.
Then get on the horn before it's too late.