After Blair Walsh followed up his shocking playoff miss in January with a horrific start to his 2016 season last weekend, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made no mistake about it: The kicker’s continuing issues are all mental.
“We have confidence in him — the players, the coaches,” Priefer said Thursday. “But he’s got to have confidence in himself.”
Walsh, whether in defiance or denial, continues to insist his confidence is not shattered. And after the season-opening 25-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, during which Walsh missed two field-goal attempts and an extra-point try, he said any concern when it comes to his performance is merely media “drama.”
But it is clear, even if they won’t admit it publicly, the Vikings are concerned.
“Right now, I would never look for another kicker,” Priefer said. “I know Blair is our guy. I think coach [Mike] Zimmer said it after the game, [that] he’s our guy but he has to make those kicks. He was disappointed just as much as we were disappointed that he missed them. Going forward, he’s going to be the guy.”
It felt at the time as if Priefer was trying to reassure Walsh, not placate his critics.
Yes, Walsh will be the kicker Sunday night when the Green Bay Packers come to U.S. Bank Stadium for an early-season showdown. That could change if another critical miss costs them a victory.
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In the eight months since Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal wide left from the left hash with 26 seconds remaining in a 10-9 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks at frigid TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings have been trying to piece back together the kicker’s psyche. Then he went out and missed his first two kicks in his first meaningful game.
Priefer said Walsh showed up for spring workouts “focused and ready to go.” But the Vikings still had Walsh, against the kicker’s wishes, focus on shorter field goals, which Walsh has described as “automatic” kicks. There were rarely long bombs, and certainly not when there was a hint of wind outside of Winter Park.
“He thought he was being babied a little bit,” Priefer said. “There’s a method to our madness. Coach Zimmer said, ‘Let’s just start him short and let him get his confidence up and go from there.’ And it really worked well in the preseason.”
Priefer estimated in early August that Walsh had a 92 percent success rate on the more than 200 field goals that Walsh attempted during the spring. And he made 53 of his 62 practice kicks in the four weeks following the start of training camp.
But none were attempted from 27 yards out on the left hash. That was by design.
“I didn’t want him to think, ‘Oh, they want to make sure I can make this,’ ” said Priefer, implying they didn’t want Walsh to think they were playing mind games with him.
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Despite their delicate handling of the fifth-year kicker, the Vikings would not have kept him around without competition if they didn’t believe he would bounce back from his now infamous miss. After all, Walsh has overcome adversity before.
After strong sophomore and junior years at Georgia, Walsh made only 60 percent of his field-goal attempts as a senior. The Vikings, though, were certain Walsh had all the skills needed to be a top NFL kicker and that they could help him do it.
The issue, in their minds, was that the Bulldogs asked Walsh and their field-goal unit to get kicks off in less than one second. Priefer said the “ridiculous” rushed routine led to technical lapses. The Vikings, meanwhile, shoot for between 1.27 and 1.31 seconds. When Walsh misses, it’s often because he speeds up his approach.
The unknown as the Vikings scouted Walsh and other kickers before the 2012 draft was whether the substandard senior year had shaken his confidence.
Priefer conducted two long interviews with Walsh at the 2012 scouting combine. He later ran him through a private workout and took him to dinner the night before. A conversation with former NFL kicker Kevin Butler helped sell him on Walsh.
Butler’s son is Drew Butler, the punter for the Arizona Cardinals who was Walsh’s teammate at Georgia. Kevin Butler believed Walsh could handle anything the NFL might throw at him after enduring jeers from the rabid Georgia fanbase that year.
After all that vetting of Walsh, Priefer “knew that mentally he was going to be OK.”
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He was right. Walsh, whom the Vikings picked in the sixth round that year, earned first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie and followed that up with a strong second season. His 2014 season was rocky, but he rebounded in 2015, making 88.1 percent of his field-goal attempts before his infamous playoff miss in January.
As Walsh’s eyes overflowed with tears as he talked to reporters in the stunned locker room, his social media accounts were being flooded with hateful comments.
Now, Butler’s belief that Walsh could handle anything the NFL threw at him is being tested by a Molotov cocktail of pressure, public criticism and self-doubt.
Walsh made seven of his eight preseason field-goal attempts. The only miss was a would-be winner from 47 yards at Seattle on Aug. 18.
In the season opener, Walsh pulled left a 37-yard attempt from the left hash. Missing the 56-yarder before halftime was understandable, though the kick came up short and was well wide. He rebounded to make four second-half field goals, none bigger than his 50-yarder just after halftime. But he missed an extra point.
“Obviously, it’s unacceptable to miss those two field goals early in the game and I’ve got to clean up the extra-point stuff,” Walsh said Thursday. “But it’s [the first game]. I’ll progress and get better. And I thought there was enough stuff to draw upon that would lead me to be confident going into this weekend.”
Asked if he was feeling the heat, he said, “You guys say what you want to say.”
When a reporter pointed out a pair of inspirational quotes hanging in his locker, which were given to him in high school by a teacher, Walsh sarcastically replied, “You guys are diving deep here, huh? Week 2 and we’re going into this?”
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Former Vikings and Packers kicker Ryan Longwell is friends with Walsh and remained in touch during the offseason. He never had a season-ending miss to recover from and can’t imagine what it would be like waiting so long to try to atone for a miss like that. He was encouraged by how Walsh responded to his early misses Sunday.
“It’s really about maintaining your rhythm and timing, especially in those pressure situations. People tend to speed up,” Longwell said this week. “It’s just your natural inclination, whether you’re on the PGA Tour or kicking a football and playing quarterback. … Hopefully Blair can just stay in rhythm, keep things nice and calm and have a good year, and keep stroking like he did the other day in the second half.
“He’s got tons of talent. It’s just about staying in rhythm for the long haul.”
Walsh said again Thursday that he still believes he is one of the best kickers in the NFL. And Zimmer reiterated that he thinks Walsh is over the Seahawks miss, saying, “I don’t need to see anything” to know the kicker has moved on. Priefer hopes the 50-yarder in Tennessee “really helped him get over the hump.”
“Every kick you have to continue to build that confidence,” Priefer said later. “If he doesn’t think about stuff and just goes out there and kicks the ball, he’ll be fine.”
But can Walsh escape his own mind before it costs the Vikings another big game? Publicly, everyone at Winter Park says they believe, all while holding their breath.