By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Dallas Cowboys awarded him that monstrous contract in the off-season for this? A mysterious injury that kept him sidelined most of preseason. The insufferable ego that has him resting on his résumé and shrugging off mistakes. A wobbly relationship with coach Bill Parcells. And, of course, the sleep issue.
The Cowboys' 2006 season opener is imminent, and yep--just as you feared--kicker Mike Vanderjagt is more screwball than savior.
Capping a crappy summer in which he made only two field goals but an impressive 137 references to himself as the NFL's most accurate kicker, Vanderjagt yakked two chip shots in an exhibition draw with the Minnesota Vikings and then dismissed the gaffes as kicks he could make in his sleep.
"I'm sure everybody would like to see the field goals go in at some point," Vanderjagt said casually after last Thursday's tie at Texas Stadium. "Somehow I have the ability to turn it on when it counts."
The Cowboys opened training camp with doubts about their offensive line and a nervous tic regarding the combustible personality of Terrell Owens. But heading into Sunday's opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars, a bigger worry is that their new kicker hasn't cured an old problem.
Because Vanderjagt can't kick off, Dallas had to re-shuffle its roster to keep a backup kicker (Shaun Suisham) and lose a valuable special teams player (Terrance Copper). And since Vanderjagt's last NFL kick, first training camp kick and final two preseason kicks were farther right than Dr. James Dobson, a collective breath is being held until he splits the uprights on a meaningful boot.
"At some point you have to show me you can still do it," Parcells said of Vanderjagt Tuesday during his Valley Ranch press conference. "With him I really haven't seen that much. Hopefully as we go along things will improve."
Much as he despises the little necessary evils, Parcells realized in the off-season his team was a reliable kicker away from being a Super Bowl contender. Dallas lost three games last season because its three-toed sloth named Jose Cortez/Billy Cundiff/Suisham botched gimme field goals against the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. With three makes under 41 yards, 9-7 would've been 12-4.
"Guess I'm responsible for three games," Vanderjagt said back at training camp in Oxnard, California. "I'm supposed to turn those problems around and be sort of an answer to the prayers."
But come to think of it, the Cowboys and field goal kickers have always co-existed about as harmoniously as rap and humility. Since Dallas last won a playoff game in December 1996, Chris Boniol, Richie Cunningham, Tim Seder, Cundiff, Cortez and Suisham have all failed to boot the team into January.
And in their illustrious 45-year history the Cowboys have had only two Pro Bowl kickers--Efren Herrera in '77 and Rafael Septien in '81.
To remedy that problem, owner Jerry Jones signed one of the strongest, straightest legs this side of The Rockettes to the richest kicking contract in franchise history--three years, $6 million, with a $2.5 million signing bonus.
Says Jones, "Getting our kicking situation shored up was vital."
The 36-year-old Vanderjagt brings to Dallas unabashed arrogance, unprecedented accuracy...and psychological carry-ons he's yet to safely stow in his overhead bin.
As anyone who interviewed him in Oxnard learned, Vanderjagt is the most accurate kicker in NFL history. After bouncing from West Virginia University to the Arena League and even Canadian football, he made an astounding 87.5 percent of his field goals (217 of 248) and 99.4 percent (344 of 346) of his extra points during an 8-year career with the Indianapolis Colts. Two years ago he set the league record with 42 consecutive field goals and last year was 23 of 25.
One of the league's best kickers, Vanderjagt's refreshing honesty and lofty self-evaluations also make him the most controversial. On his personal Web site (mikevanderjagt.net), he basically rehearses his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, lays the groundwork for what just has to be Will Ferrell's next comedic character and shrugs in fake modesty, "I'm the best there ever was, I can't help it."
Vanderjagt has irked opponents with post-kick theatrics highlighted by an animated head tilt. And after the '02 season he infamously agitated Peyton Manning by telling a Canadian radio network that both the quarterback and Colts coach Tony Dungy lacked the necessary chutzpah to become champions.
In a retort that will likely show up not on Vanderjagt's MySpace page but rather his tombstone, Manning fired back: "We're talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off. The sad thing is, he's a good kicker. But he's an idiot."
Because of his maximum attitude in the locker room and minimal altitude on kickoffs, the Colts decided not to re-sign Vanderjagt even before he wildly shanked a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal in the final seconds of last January's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though Vanderjagt dismisses the theory as "nonsense," there are whispers that the nasty slice--he missed by 20 yards--has spread into a mental roadblock the kicker may never learn to navigate.
"After all I've accomplished, I'm not going to let one kick define me," Vanderjagt said, wearing a backward baseball cap at camp. "I haven't lasted eight years in this league by lacking confidence."