The Journal Gazette
Monday, November 11, 2019 1:00 am

Only time for fans to cheer came at halftime


Stirring! Rousing! Inspiring!

The Colts on Sunday? Good heavens, no. This date might live in playoff-chance infamy.

But at least there was the halftime ceremony inducting Dwight Freeney into the Ring of Honor. At the 50-yard line, in the spotlight of a darkened stadium, stood Freeney and several Ring honorees and teammates from the past, Peyton Manning among them. It was the one chance all day the crowd had to roar.

For this was an ugly day that left many question marks in its wake. A 16-12 loss to the Miami 1-7 Dolphins  – the Miami 32-points-allowed-a-game Dolphins, the Miami minus-13-turnover-ratio Dolphins. For playoff hopes, it was like a blindside hit by a full-blitzing linebacker.

“You can't explain it,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “You've got to beat the teams you're supposed to beat and you've got to beat the teams that people say you can't beat. At least that's how you stay relevant in this league. We didn't beat a team we were supposed to beat today.”

Or as Frank Reich said, “Tough loss, tough to swallow. Even more tough to swallow when we're at home. ... We got outcoached and outplayed on all fronts.”

You wonder when Jacoby Brissett can get back from a knee sprain, and T.Y. Hilton from a calf issue. Clearly, the music stops without them on the offense. The Colts moved into the red zone five times Sunday. They scored one touchdown. 

You wonder where the running game has gone. A more dynamic ground attack might have taken some of the heat off backup Brian Hoyer, who didn't even know he was starting until Saturday morning. He threw three interceptions. Until Friday, the Colts were hoping Brissett would return.

Most baffling of all, you wonder again what should be done, if anything, about Adam Vinatieri if – and this question would have seemed unthinkable two months ago – they can stay in the playoff chase, should his Hall of Fame leg continue to scatter kicks right, and more times left. The PAT kick is supposed to be bordering automatic in the NFL. A must-make. Vinatieri missed his sixth of the season Sunday, this one of the more costly. If he makes the PAT, the Colts are not behind 13-12 after a Dolphins field goal with 5:45 left in the game. If he makes the PAT, they trail only 16-13 in their final drive, and can play for a field goal to tie, instead of being forced to go searching for a touchdown they never found.

To be sure, he wasn't the only reason for Sunday's flop, just the most conspicuous. Struggling kickers in the NFL are like struggling closers in baseball. When they falter, the whole world knows it, and it almost always hurts.

The locker room still seems united behind him. “I haven't heard anything, sensed anything. There's nothing but confidence in him,” Reich said. Darius Leonard grew cranky at the very question from the media. “How many years you been kicking? How many Super Bowl championships you have? How many game-winners you got? C'mon now. He's the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) for a reason.”

Ryan Kelly said, “I've trusted him since I've been a rookie, and that will never change.”

And Reich again, on why he has stood by his kicker so resolutely. “It's two things. It's the track record and it's what we see in practice, and I believe this guy to be mentally one of the toughest guys to ever play.”

OK, that's three. And yet, Reich added this:

“Like everybody – I'd say this generally speaking about our roster – we're always going to evaluate. Everybody gets measured, everyone's held accountable. Nothing meant to read into that, that's just the reality of this business.”

Vinatieri understands the business as well as anyone. He has made a legend for himself there. But these are uncertain days. He said he'd had a great week of practice and missed but one kick, a 60-yarder. He shunned questions about any injury with a simple, “I'm healthy enough to be on the field.” He denied any lack of confidence. “It's fine. It's not a matter of that. It's just a matter of executing.”

He said he does not consider imminent retirement a possibility, no matter the reports earlier in the season. “A nasty rumor.” And he thanked Reich for his continued support. “I appreciate that, obviously. ... He's seen a lot of football, been around a long time. For him to continue to do that is impressive.”

But the Colts are 5-4 now, a game behind Houston. If the season ended Sunday, they would not be in the playoffs. They can't afford many more big misses. Their only response, this stunned team and its unsteady kicker, was the vow to get back to work.

“What (else) do you want me to do?” Vinatieri said. “Absolutely.”

Mike Lopresti is a freelance writer. His articles appear periodically.

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