There was a time, if you can believe it, that the Vikings enjoyed above-average, drama-free placekicking. Ryan Longwell started that path in 2006, when the Vikings signed him away from Green Bay. He kicked for six years in Minnesota and made 86 percent of his field goals during that time.
Blair Walsh replaced him in 2012, and he was even better for that first year. Walsh made 35 of 38 field goals as a rookie, including an incredible 10 of 10 from 50 yards or more. It looked like the Vikings were set for another decade at least.
Narrator: This was not the case.
Walsh was decent in 2013, bad in 2014 and shaky in 2015 before missing the 27-yarder in the playoffs from which he never really recovered. Kai Forbath replaced him midway through 2016 and stayed through 2017, doing quite well on field goals but giving everyone nightmares on extra points.
Daniel Carlson made just 1 of 4 field goals and was cut after two games this year because the reliable Dan Bailey was available. He’s been anything but, missing a bunch of kicks including a 48-yarder last week at New England.
These kicking woes feel familiar for anyone who watched the Vikings after Gary Anderson and before Longwell. But the “what” is well-established. What nobody has been able to solve yet is the “why.” First, the overall numbers and context:
On field goal attempts since 2013, here is the breakdown by kicker:
Bailey: 16 of 22; Carlson: 1 of 4; Forbath: 47 of 53; Walsh: 98 for 120. Total: 162 for 199 (81.4 percent).
The NFL average has been between 84 and 85 percent each of the last five years, including this one. So the Vikings have missed about seven more field goals since the start of the 2013 season than the average team. That’s a little more than one per season over a 5.5-season span, costing them about 4 points a year.
On extra points since 2015, when the rule changed and made them from 33 yards instead of 20:
Bailey: 20 of 21; Carlson: 6 of 6; Forbath: 45 of 53; Walsh: 48 for 56. Total: 119 for 136 (87.5 percent).
The NFL average is about 94 percent since rule changed. The Vikings have missed about nine more extra points than the average team in the last three-plus years, costing them about 2-3 points per season.
So the Vikings are missing about a touchdown worth of kicks a year — about half a point per game. That doesn’t seem like much. But missed kicks often are about more than just about missed points. They can be deflating and particularly costly if they come in crucial situations.
The interesting thing is that this spans four different kickers. Walsh had the longest tenure but was increasingly shaky on both field goals and extra points. Forbath was extremely accurate (almost 89 percent) on field goals but missed a stunning eight extra points. Carlson and Bailey have been fine on extra points but missed nine combined field goals this year. So what is it?
THE CHRIS KLUWE FACTOR
One interesting facet of all this is that former punter Chris Kluwe was the holder on field goals during Longwell’s entire tenure here and for Walsh’s breakout rookie year. He was dumped by the Vikings after 2012, though — right at the point struggles started to creep in.
But … Walsh was still pretty good in 2013 with Jeff Locke as his holder, making 26 of 30 field goals that year. The Vikings have also employed Ryan Quigley (2017) and Matt Wile (2018) as holders/punters since Kluwe left. Unless you believe in curses (more on that in a minute), it’s hard to pin this on holds or believe that Kluwe had some special gift for catching a snap and setting the ball down.
THE EXTRA POINT RULE
I’ve had a theory for a while that moving the extra point from 20 to 33 yards has impacted kickers negatively because every kick now is magnified and carries more pressure. It certainly was part of Walsh’s downfall. Forbath might still be here, too, if the extra point was still 20 yards and he hadn’t missed eight of them.
I had a chance to ask Bailey about it when he signed in September. “It’s a good question,” he said. “Obviously they moved the extra point back a few years ago, so I mean maybe that emphasized things a little more and created more drama.”
But … field goal accuracy in the NFL has been basically the same since the extra point change (between 84.2 and 84.9 percent year to year), and overall placekicking has grown vastly more accurate over the years. When the Vikings came into the league in 1961, fewer than half of all field goals were successful. If kickers are more stressed out, they aren’t really showing it across the league on field goals even if they naturally miss more of the long extra points.
BAD PERSONNEL DECISIONS
Walsh and Carlson were both Rick Spielman draft picks who had shaky senior years in college. Did that history indicate both were prone to having lapses that would cost them their jobs with the Vikings?
And did the Vikings/Spielman make a bad choice overall in moving on from Forbath — who at least was reliable on field goals even if he was maddening on extra points? (You can second-guess the decision to move on from Carlson given that he’s since kicked well for the Raiders, but cutting him and adding Bailey was almost universally suggested and praised at the time).
These are reasonable things to question … but there is value in long-term stability at the kicking position and the Vikings have clearly sought that. And when they parted ways with both Walsh and Carlson, they added kickers in Forbath and Bailey who are among the most accurate in NFL history.
Special teams coach Mike Priefer has been a constant during the struggles, and head coach Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014 when the struggles really gained some steam.
Is there a technique or mental approach that Priefer is using that doesn’t help? Possibly, but he was also here in 2012 when Walsh was one of the NFL’s best.
Zimmer has been critical of kickers numerous times, saying “he’s got to make it” after Walsh missed that playoff field goal … asking “did you see the game?” when discussing Carlson being cut … and saying in a halftime interview of the Green Bay game two weeks ago that the Vikings would need to go for it on fourth down instead of trusting Bailey, who had missed from 48 and 56 yards in the first half (Bailey ended up trying and making a go-ahead field goal, by the way).
Zimmer is a task-oriented coach who values players who do their job. It’s possible the frustration of inevitable misses from kickers causes him to have emotional reactions in the moment that create a downward spiral. But Zimmer would hardly be the first coach to criticize a kicker or be disappointed in misses, and if a kicker suffered as a result would you really want that kicker?
It’s fashionable to say the Vikings are “cursed,” but most reasonable people don’t believe in such a thing.
What I would subscribe to, though, is the notion of a collective weight accumulating and contributing to both an overall perception and reality of a situation. (Maybe that’s your definition of a curse. So be it).
That is to say: Vikings kickers become aware of the struggles of their predecessors. Misses become magnified because of that history, and even if Vikings kickers are just a little worse than league average it feels like it’s much worse. Kickers lose confidence because everyone fears the worst, and shanks become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s interesting to think about … but none of these kickers had their tenures overlap. Is Bailey really thinking about what Walsh did in 2015 when he lines up a kick? Even if there is a subconscious awareness, does that really matter when muscle memory kicks in?
Maybe it’s a combination of all or some of these things — the death by 1,000 paper cuts approach. It’s not all the holder’s fault, but it probably didn’t help that Wile was late getting on the field for the missed 48-yarder at New England. The extra point hasn’t impacted kickers across the board, but maybe it’s hurt the Vikings in particular. Spielman wasn’t wrong to want to upgrade at kicker, but he probably handled it wrong in spots. Same with the coaching. And maybe these kickers really are seeing or feeling ghosts when they approach the ball?
Or maybe the best explanation is just a series of random events, human errors and the whims of an oblong ball.