Two hours before Dan Bailey’s first practice with the Vikings on Wednesday, when Mike Zimmer was asked about the peace of mind that comes with a veteran kicker, he replied with a comparison that revealed just how deep of a crevasse the Vikings’ woes at the position have created.
“I kind of feel the same way about him as I did with the quarterback position,” Zimmer said. “Somebody asked me the other day about the five years I’ve been here we’ve been trying to get that position solidified, so if we can get that position solidified like we have with the quarterback I think that’ll be good.”
So is Bailey the Kirk Cousins of Vikings kickers? If you think about it, is the comparison really all that crazy?
The Vikings have used seven starting quarterbacks in Zimmer’s five years with the team, forced to adapt on the fly because of injuries (to Matt Cassel, Sam Bradford and, most notably, Teddy Bridgewater). They thought they had a long-term solution in Bridgewater, until his knee injury triggered a series of events that led to the team starting four veterans (Shaun Hill, Bradford, Case Keenum and Cousins) over the next 33 regular-season games. Cousins, in the first year of a three-year, $84 million deal, is the player the Vikings believe can finally solve their long-term problem.
They are now on their fourth kicker in Zimmer’s five years, after Blair Walsh’s infamous 27-yard miss in the 2016 NFC wild-card game (and his ensuing collapse) sent the team scrambling for solutions. On Sunday, Bailey will become the Vikings’ third kicker in 26 regular-season games since the team released Walsh in the middle of the 2016 season.
The Vikings have devoted more than $2 million in cap space to three kickers this year (Bailey, Daniel Carlson and Kai Forbath) after Walsh occupied $3.428 million of cap space the last two years — while kicking in nine games during that time. But when the position gets to be as big of a bugaboo as it has become for the Vikings, money isn’t much of an object.
And during Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota, there’s perhaps no NFL team for whom kicker has been as big of a bugaboo.
In the coach’s five seasons, he’s watched the Vikings make 81.6 percent of their field goals — the seventh-worst percentage in the league. They’ve been even less successful on extra points: Their 88.9 percent success rate since 2014 is the NFL’s lowest, and their 16 misses are two more than any team.
“In the NFL, as you guys know, you’re always looking to get better,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said this week. “Kai [Forbath], I mentioned this before, Kai had a good solid performance but sometimes he kicked them too low. He missed a lot of PATs; he’s not as strong on kickoffs, and Kai again did a great job for us. Again, when he left I thanked him for all his work, but you’re always trying to get better. Dan [Bailey] would have been the type of guy to upgrade that spot. He wasn’t available this offseason.
“We looked at some other guys, and some other guys signed big money other places. [General manager] Rick [Spielman] felt it was the best thing — and I agreed with him — to bring in a young kicker: the best one we felt [was] coming out of the college draft. He won the job and then he just didn’t get the job done on Sunday. I think in the NFL you’re always looking to get better with what you got, or you need to upgrade like we did this week.”
Will Bailey be the long-term answer to the Vikings’ kicking quandary? Only time will tell. He hit a career-low 75 percent of his field goals last season, while missing four games with a groin injury he said is now fully healed.
The second-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history is now on the job for the Vikings, and both his new head coach and new special teams coordinator sounded relieved to have a veteran in place this week.
But in a week in which the Vikings and Bills — two franchises whose histories could have been forever changed by minor alterations to the flight path of a field goal — prepare to meet on Sunday, it’s as good a time as any to remember how vexing a task kicking can be.
“It’s very black and white: Your kicks either go in or they don’t,” Bailey said. “At the end of the day, the more situations you go through, the more situations you see, you definitely learn.
“I’ve been fortunate over the years to see a lot of different situations, to be put in a lot of pressure situations. It’s always going to get your blood flowing a little bit, but I’ve learned to enjoy that, to embrace that moment and to just keep it going.”