Vanderjagt's struggles continue

IRVING, Texas -- For Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, it was a case of exhilaration mixed with exasperation here on Sunday evening. Not in equal doses, mind you, but with enough of the latter to have Parcells perhaps considering trying to find someone who can make a big field goal.

Right now, it appears, that guy is not Mike Vanderjagt.

"I think he has been a good kicker, but he keeps telling me that I don't have to worry about him," Parcells said, following Dallas' 21-14 upset of the previously undefeated Indianapolis Colts. "Well, I am worried about him now. That's all I'm going to say."

And that's all that needed to be said.

Parcells generally doesn't require a surplus of syllables to deliver a message, and Sunday was no different. When it came to addressing the ongoing struggles of Vanderjagt, who missed two field goal tries against his former Indianapolis employers, Parcells was more into frustration than filibustering.

"I think he has been a good kicker, but he keeps telling me that I don't have to worry about him. Well, I am worried about him now. That's all I'm going to say."
Bill Parcells, Cowboys coach on kicker Mike Vanderjagt

No one in the Dallas organization is reaching for the panic button yet. But if Vanderjagt doesn't quickly improve his reliability rating, Parcells or owner Jerry Jones might soon reach for the phone, to call Billy Cundiff, Todd Peterson, Jose Cortez, or any of the other free-agent kickers who would jump at a chance to sign on with a Cowboys team that suddenly has the look of a team that could go deep into the playoffs.

The most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, Vanderjagt, who signed a three-year contract worth nearly $6 million as an unrestricted free agent this spring, has converted only 12 of 17 field goals. That's only two fewer misses in 10 games as the nine-year veteran had in the past three seasons combined. In his eight seasons with the Colts, a tenure sometimes marked by petulance and marred by a long-standing feud with quarterback Peyton Manning, he converted 87.5 percent of his field goal attempts.

If his demeanor was frequently a little off-center, Vanderjagt's field goals were usually down the middle.

But with the Cowboys, whose history under Jones' stewardship has been to unearth an unproven kicker and develop him while paying out just a minimum base salary, Vanderjagt's success rate is 70.6 percent. On Sunday, he clanged a 43-yard attempt in the second quarter off the right upright, then was a couple yards wide right on a 46-yard try on the final play of the half.

There were occasions in the second half, although Parcells denied it, that it appeared the Cowboys' play-calling was designed to avoid a fourth down that would bring on Vanderjagt, lustily jeered by the Texas Stadium crowd, for another field goal attempt. On one fourth-and-inches play, when it became obvious the Cowboys would eschew a field goal try and instead run for a first down, Vanderjagt stood far down the sideline, isolated with his thoughts and nearly 30 yards away from his closest teammate.

In the Cowboys' locker room afterwards, Vanderjagt stared hard at the floor, mentally rummaging through the pile of discarded socks and athletic tape, perhaps hoping to discover a remedy in the remnants of a huge win that would have come easier for Dallas had he done his job.

Given his inherent cockiness, there's little doubt that Vanderjagt would have loved to have driven a dagger into the heart of an Indianapolis team that cast him off in favor of Adam Vinatieri. In the best of times, he would have nailed a field goal as time ran out to send the Colts spiraling from the ranks of the unbeaten.

But for Vanderjagt, it is hardly the best of times, though he seems outwardly to have retained his usual confidence, even if it has come with a dash of comeuppance.

"I apologize to the team and to the fans," Vanderjagt said. "There's nothing more I can say or do about it. It's my third upright [I've hit] this season. It's just six inches from being a great kick, and then no one remembers the [previous] misses. But it's not acceptable to perform like that."

Parcells and even Jones, who held court in the middle of the locker room after one of the biggest wins in recent Cowboys history, weren't about to disagree with that assessment. Winners of three of four games since Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, and with a young and emerging defense, Dallas seems capable of making some noise in the playoffs. But with six regular-season games left to play, in a league where about 25 percent of the contests are decided by three points or less, this is not a team with a wide margin for error.

And not a team good enough to squander scoring opportunities with a kicker who can't get the ball between the uprights.

"We have to make those field goals," Jones said. "We've just got to make them."

No one knows that more than Vanderjagt, who always seems stunned when he misses, and allows his errant attempts to hang with him.

"In the past," he said, "I've always made those kicks. And I'll make them again."

He'd better. And quickly. Because judging by the distressed look on Parcells' face in discussing the kicking situation, and despite his insistence that he isn't intimating a change is in order, The Tuna could soon go fishing for a new guy.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.