Adam Vinatieri, arguably the most clutch kicker in NFL history, refers to each year of his career as a new chapter.
Chapter 16 has been unlike any other.
Vinatieri, whose right foot played a big part in delivering three Super Bowl championships to the New England Patriots, returns to Gillette Stadium on Sunday for the third time as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. In his 16 years in the NFL, this will be just his second losing season.
"I've been extremely fortunate in my career, and now having a year like this, where that first win has evaded us for 11 weeks, it's been frustrating," Vinatieri, 38, said Friday. "We've been in games, close ones, but haven't found a way to finish them. It's been a trying year, but we're not giving up. We'll fight to the bitter end."
The only other losing season Vinatieri experienced was 2000, when the Patriots were 5-11 in Bill Belichick's first year as coach. The 1999 season, in Pete Carroll's final year in New England, produced an 8-8 record.
It's hard to believe, but this is already Vinatieri's sixth season with the Colts after he spent his first 10 with the Patriots (1996-2005). He signed a three-year contract with the Colts prior to this season and feels like he's kicking the football as far as he ever has. He's just not kicking it as much.
Vinatieri, who is 13-of-16 on field goal attempts, didn't envision the Colts being 0-11 at this point, but he knew the challenge was greater without injured quarterback Peyton Manning.
"He's an awesome player and it's hard to put a value on that," Vinatieri said. "There are so many things he can do. He's obviously not playing on defense, but he helped control the ball on offense and that allowed the defense to play differently. That makes a big difference, but that's not the only factor. We still have a lot of great players and collectively we can play better."
As for his return to Gillette Stadium, Vinatieri has been down this road before. The Colts played here in 2006, his first season in Indianapolis, and then returned in 2010.
"I cherish every time I get to come back and walk into that stadium, it brings back a lot of good memories and lots of good times. It has special meaning," he said. "I know it's just one game on a list of 16 regular-season games, but I think there are special memories for anyone who played somewhere for a long time. It's like when Bill Belichick went into old Giants Stadium [as shown in the movie 'Bill Belichick: A Football Life']. I have the same feeling when I go to Foxborough."
Vinatieri's departure in free agency to the rival Colts has made it hard for some Patriots followers to cheer for him, and he understands that. It's been reflected in the welcome he's received in his previous two trips to Foxborough.
"I think they've given me the welcome that is fitting. A lot of people said nice things and cheered me when I came out [in warm-ups and pregame], but when the game starts I have a different jersey on and I expect no extra good tidings," he said. "I expect the same way this week. I know this year is a little different but the rivalry has always been there. It's pretty hot."
Vinatieri laughed when asked if he still has a little Patriots red, white and blue in his blood.
"Listen, the 10 great years in New England will be a very big part in my life forever, until the day I die. I have three beautiful [Super Bowl] rings and a lot of great memories. Even though my loyalty is to my team now, I will always have a special place in my heart for the New England Patriots and that franchise, [Owner] Mr. [Robert] Kraft and his family. That goes without saying. Ten years down the road, when I'm retired, I'll be looking forward to the [Super Bowl] reunions."
Vinatieri, who added a fourth Super Bowl ring with the Colts, hasn't spoken much with Stephen Gostkowski, who has ably replaced him in New England over the past six years. The two have talked before games between the Patriots and Colts, and Vinatieri said he's impressed with what he's seen.
"You couldn't have asked for a better kicker to come in and do what he's done," Vinatieri said. "He has a big leg and he's a very solid guy, especially last year when he went through the injury and bounced back. I have all the respect in the world for him."
Over the years, Vinatieri has earned the respect of many, with some analysts making the case he is worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi is the latest, saying this week, "What is being a kicker in the NFL about? Making the kick when the game is on the line. He made kicks when the game was on the line, and they were the biggest games in the history of the league."
Vinatieri, whose has three children (ages 8, 6, and 19 months) with his wife, Valerie, is flattered by the discussion, but makes a point not to address it because he's not thinking about the end of his career.
"I love Tedy and appreciate all those things when they are said, but I still feel like I have some more football to be played," he said. "So that type of stuff is so distant, and even then, there are a lot of kickers who played before me that deserve to go in the Hall. If I'm fortunate enough that it happens, great, but I'm not thinking about it.
"What I'm thinking about is helping my team win games, continuing my career, and keeping adding chapters to my book. Hopefully there will be a few more exclamation points at the end of those chapters."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.