It's not Matt Stover's(notes) fault he's Matt Stover. So you can't blame the Indianapolis Colts kicker for missing a 51-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV. The 42-year-old, who Sunday became the oldest player ever to suit up in the NFL's biggest game, had kicked only one field goal longer than 50 yards since 2002. For his career, Stover is just 13 for 32 from 50-plus, and most of those attempts took place when Stover was in his kicking prime.
Stover was cut at the end of last season by the Baltimore Ravens in large part because of his diminished long-range skills. And now, on the biggest stage in sports, a team with Peyton Manning(notes) was putting its destiny on the foot of a man old enough to actually remember when the band playing halftime was actually revelant?
Stover never should have been put in that situation. There was little doubt that his 51-yard try, which would have given Indy a 20-16 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the game, would fail. He doesn't have the leg for such kicks anymore. He never did. Stover was, and is, an excellent kicker from inside 49 yards. For his career, he's 86 percent from that distance. Once he gets over 50 yards though, that percentage drops to 40 percent. Since 2004 he's only attempted four kicks from beyond 50. Those kicks aren't part of his game.
It's not a knock on him to say this any more than it is to say that Joe Montana wasn't as good as Brett Favre(notes) because he didn't throw it as hard. Stover is an accurate kicker, not one with long range. This isn't an insult, but a fact. To ask him to be a kicker he's not was the real error, not the inevitable missed kick (which fluttered wide left and barely made it to the back of the end zone).
But that's basically what Jim Caldwell and Peyton Manning did. Facing a third-and-11 from the New Orleans 33-yard line, Manning went no huddle and threw a deep pass to Austin Collie(notes) that fell incomplete. The Colts were playing for the first down and to extend the drive. The decision failed.
In retrospect it's easy to say the Colts should have thrown a short pass and taken a chunk out of the 11 yards in order to give Stover a more palatable 43-yard field goal. That's probably what I would have done. But playing it safe isn't how the Colts entered the Super Bowl with an undefeated record this season in games that meant something. Peyton is a risk-taker, much like Saints coach Sean Payton (witness the onside kick to start the second half.) He didn't care that Stover would have to kick a 51-yarder because he didn't think Stover would have to do it in the first place. The plan wasn't to throw an incompletion, it was to get a first down with Collie and only bring Stover out to kick the extra point after a touchdown.
That mentality is part of why Peyton and the Colts are so good. But when reality does rear its head, a better decision needs to be made. Letting Stover kick that field goal was essentially the same thing as failing to convert on fourth down. Either run a short play on third down and go for it on fourth, or go for the whole thing on third and punt if it doesn't work out. Settling for a prayer field goal can't be the game plan there.
After the miss, New Orleans got the ball on its own 41-yard line and nine plays later scored the go-ahead touchdown. A late Peyton Manning interception sealed the game for the Saints. That Tracy Porter(notes) interception will become the signature play of this contest, seen for years on highlight films and remembered as the defining moment. But Matt Stover's miss was just as big ... and completely avoidable.