Not every mistake teaches a lesson.
If an NFL team takes a quarterback with the first overall pick who doesn’t succeed, that does not mean the team should never again take a quarterback with the first overall pick. There is a difference between erring in execution and erring in philosophy.
Tuesday, the Vikings had to own up to a mistake, and it was a mistake of the touching-a-hot-stove variety, one that should find its way into a management binder under a tab reading: “Never do this, ever.”
In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Vikings were forced to release kicker Blair Walsh during the first year of a four-year, $13.7 million contract, an embarrassing development for a generally well-run franchise.
Their mistakes with Walsh came at every level and every turn.
They used a sixth-round draft pick on Walsh. They can justify that by citing Walsh’s outstanding rookie season, but they may have been better off taking a raw offensive lineman and developing him into someone who might be helping them today.
They believed that Walsh’s shoddy senior year at Georgia was an aberration, believing that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer could fix Walsh’s mechanics and turn him into a standout. That worked well enough for a while but not long enough to justify the use of a draft pick on a noncontact player.
They believed that Walsh was worthy of an expensive contract extension, investing further in their original analysis of him and doubling down when they should have considered cutting ties.
And then they overlooked his 27-yard shank that cost them what would have been their only playoff victory since 2009, even though that particular missed kick proved there was something missing in his mental approach.
You don’t miss a 27-yard field goal because of poor mechanics. You miss a 27-yard field goal because the wrong thoughts were populating your head.
Let this be the lesson:
NFL teams should almost never invest heavily in a kicker. Kickers can go south at any time and for any reason, and few of them are markedly better than those you would sign off the street to replace them.
If the Vikings weren’t going to release Walsh after his missed kick against Seattle, they should have when he demonstrated, after an offseason of fine-tuning and mood-enhancing, that he was unreliable in the 2016 season opener.
If he wasn’t fixed after eight months of preparation, he was bound to cost this team this season.
The most damaging part of the Blair Walsh Project was the contract extension, which cost the Vikings actual money and cap space that could have been used on an actual football player, the kind that needs to be replaced because he has sacrificed a knee, synapse or spleen for the franchise.
The Vikings front office chose to spend nearly $14 million on a kicker instead of a player. At the time, that player was fullback Jerome Felton, a powerhouse who excelled at creating holes for Adrian Peterson and might be of use today helping a tattered offensive line. The Vikings released Felton and signed Walsh, and now are seeking quality replacements for both.
There are exceptions to the don’t-invest-in-a-kicker rule, but they are exceptions that should be earned, not gifted.
New England’s Stephen Gostkowski is such an example. He signed a four-year deal worth $17 million, but he is not Blair Walsh. Gostkowski has succeeded in Super Bowls, playoff games and bad weather, and under constant pressure from a cutthroat coach. He also plays for a franchise adept at ditching players before they become expensive, giving the Patriots more money to spend on a proven kicker.
Adam Vinatieri might be the greatest kicker in NFL history. His current contract is for two years and $6 million, and he has set records and won Super Bowls.
The Vikings fell in love with Walsh’s leg and ignored his skittish mind, and now they’re trying out a replacement when a kicker should be the least of their concerns.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org