By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts came into their bye week feeling pretty good about themselves.
And why not? After all, the Colts were sporting a 5-0 record, are one of five NFL teams with an unblemished record, and have a whopping three-game lead in the AFC South standings.
On top of that, it looks very much as if several injured starters — such as safety Bob Sanders (knee), cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden (hamstring) and Marlin Jackson (knee), and offensive tackle Charlie Johnson (knee) — are close to returning to the practice field on a regular basis and might be available to play in the team’s Oct. 25 road game at St. Louis.
But then some distressing news began to emerge over the last couple of days. First, third-year defensive tackle Ed Johnson, who returned this season after being waived early last year due to his arrest for marijuana possession and speeding, was unexpectedly placed on waivers Tuesday.
And then it was announced on Wednesday that veteran placekicker Adam Vinatieri would be sidelined for at least the next four-to-eight weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee.
Vinatieri initially had surgery on both his right knee and right hip during the offseason. His most recent medical procedure was performed Tuesday in order to remove a piece of cartilage.
“Last week, Adam felt his knee was giving him a little bit of a problem. [He] had an MRI. He tried to fight through it, wanted to fight through it because he’s obviously a real warrior. But we felt that the best way to handle this situation was to go ahead and get him operated on. They saw some loose cartilage in there and straightened that out. We felt as if he got it done now, it gave us kind of an extra week with the bye week. So it’s going to be somewhere around four to eight [weeks] as opposed to having it linger and pop up later on in the year. We felt that was the best course of action,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday.
Indianapolis officials moved quickly to replace him on the roster, bringing in former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens placekicker Matt Stover.
Stover, who had been released by the Ravens during the offseason, had also a recent tryout with the New York Giants. He had spurned an opportunity earlier in the season to return to the Browns.
“In [deciding to have Vinatieri undergo surgery now], we had to go out and look for someone to take his spot in terms of handling our kicking duties. And we found Matt Stover. Matt’s obviously a true professional. He’s a guy that certainly has been around the block a bit, 18 years in the league. Certainly a true professional in everything that he does and in the way he conducts business. We’ve competed against him a number of times over the years. And so we know what kind of craftsman he is in terms of his ability to kick. We’re happy to have him.”
Caldwell stressed that character issues were not the reasons that the team decided to cut it ties with Johnson for the second straight year. This time, the move was based solely on game performance — or rather the lack of it.
Also, in order to make room for Stover and still keep Vinatieri on the active roster, the decision was made to part ways with Johnson. The former Penn State had just nine total tackles (eight solo) in the four games that he started this season.
“I know that some wondered whether or not it was a character issue. It was not. What we have to do, and it’s not easy, what we have to do when we get to these situations we have to take a real good look at our roster and see where we might be able to make an adjustment here or there to get an extra guy on it. [The decision to cut Johnson] was more production than it was anything else. That was his situation,” the Colts coach said.
“I’d probably just like to keep [the reasons for waiving Johnson] rather general and say it was production. It was a lack thereof.”
Stover glad to be with the Colts — It may bother some of his former fans in Baltimore, but Matt Stover is happy to be playing in Indianapolis.
“The opportunity for me to come and be with a team such as the Indianapolis Colts is just a great privilege for me. Being in the league now going on 20 years, to be a part of something special like this, the opportunity showed itself,” he said Wednesday.
A hunting buddy of Vinatieri’s, the 41-year old kicker still feels as if he has something to contribute in the NFL. He was released by the Ravens this past offseason after playing 13 seasons with the team. He also was with the Cleveland Browns before they moved to Baltimore in 1998.
“I kept the cleats on during the offseason. I made sure I stayed healthy and stayed in shape, just in case an opportunity showed itself, and it did. The opportunity here to kick is awesome. I’m very privileged to be here.
I’ve always said if I can’t kick a 52-yard field goal, then I won’t kick. So, I’ve been able to kick 52-yard field goals. We worked that out in the workout [Tuesday]. It is just a privilege to continue to play,” Stover said.
“I had a great opportunity there in Baltimore for all those years, nothing bad to say there, I wish them the best. But, when it comes down to it, I’m a Colt today. I’m here to help the team get to a Super Bowl. That’s what I’m about right now. There are no personal things, its just about helping the team get there. Adam Vinatieri, you cannot replace. Fantastic guy, fantastic friend. We hung together up in South Dakota, so I’ve known Adam for quite some time. What a stand-up guy. He’s dealing with a knee right now. He could be back, but he may not. I’m here just to make sure this team continues to go in the right direction. And if it needs to be into the Super Bowl, I’m ready for that, too.”
Stover had an inkling that something might be up last week, prior to the Tennessee game, when he received a heads-up from Vice President of Football Operations Chris Polian.
“It was very fast. But I had an understanding last week from Chris Polian that it possibly could come about. To tell you the courage that [Vinatieri] had to go out there and kick with the conditions in his knee shows you the type of guy he is,” he explained.
“For me to come into this opportunity and step in for him, as quickly as I did, meaning [Tuesday] I flew in, worked on the contract last night and signed it [Wednesday] morning. We were out there kicking individually and today working with the team, what a great opportunity. Now I have a few days to get off, get back home, and get all the things settled and be ready to come in and kick against the St. Louis Rams.”
As for those fans in Baltimore, Stover hopes that they’ll stick with him.
“I’ve got a pretty good following there. I’ve got a really neat fan base. I was very privileged to be a part of [the Ravens success]. I think I’ve got enough people that understand me and know that I’m a competitor. It doesn’t have to do with Baltimore and Indianapolis and that competition,” he said.
“I wasn’t part of that [the Colts move from Baltimore to Indianapolis]. But I understand that being that I was with Cleveland going to Baltimore. So I was part of that separation there. Really, at this point, I’m hoping that they’re for me. I don’t know if they’ll ever be for the Colts. But I hope they’ll be for me.”