Chris Kluwe had fully prepared himself for the letdown. He knew for more than a week his days as the Vikings’ punter were over. So on Monday, in brief morning visits with General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier, Kluwe simply absorbed his final moments at Winter Park with thick skin and a disappointed shrug.
Spielman told Kluwe the organization was officially moving in a new direction, handing the punting duties over to rookie Jeff Locke. That much had been obvious since the Vikings drafted Locke in the fifth round on April 27.
Frazier, meanwhile, thanked Kluwe for his contributions to the team and his work in the community but offered no detailed explanation for why the punter was being cut.
So Kluwe nodded, accepted his release and saw little point in peppering his bosses with loaded questions.
“I wasn’t expecting to get clear answers,” Kluwe said. “I’m not in the meetings with the management or with the coaches. I don’t know what all is said in there. And honestly, I wouldn’t anticipate them sharing that in full.”
Still, a handful of questions will be asked on Kluwe’s behalf. Topping the list: given the punter’s heightened profile and push to speak out on hot-button societal issues — most notably gay rights and marriage equality — cynics will look at the Vikings’ decision and wonder whether they cut Kluwe based solely on football or whether they had also tired of their veteran punter generating so much off-the-field attention for his candid opinions and activism.
After drafting Locke, Spielman insisted the push to separate from Kluwe was purely competitive.
“It had nothing to do with Chris Kluwe’s off-field concerns,” the GM said. “I have no issues if Chris Kluwe wants to express his opinion. That’s his right, that’s his freedom of speech. This is just a football decision to bring in a guy to come in to compete.”
The Vikings’ belief in Locke as a special teams upgrade will certainly be tested in 2013. But Spielman might have bought himself the early benefit of the doubt. Last year, he drafted kicker Blair Walsh in Round 6, subsequently cutting veteran Ryan Longwell nine days later.
Walsh responded with an All-Pro breakthrough, hitting 35 of 38 field goals and setting a league record with 10 field goals of 50 yards or longer. Perhaps Locke will similarly emerge, a possibility even Kluwe admits he will now root for.
“This is a great opportunity for Jeff,” he said. “I’m not going to wish ill will on him. He’s in a spot where I was eight years ago — just coming into the league, no proven track record in the NFL. So you have to go out and earn it.
“I wish him the best. I hope he breaks every one of my records.”
Kluwe currently holds franchise records for career punting average (44.4 yards) and kicks downed inside the 20 (198).
A year ago, he averaged 45.0 yards per punt with a career-best 39.7 net average. But his relationship with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer became strained and his on-field performance was sometimes inconsistent.
So now Kluwe is left to seek work elsewhere, firmly believing he has “at least four or five good seasons left” and already eyeing the league’s punter matrix wondering whether there might be possible openings in places such as Dallas, Cleveland, Oakland and Carolina.
“The only thing I can do is go out and punt as well as I know how and trust the body of work that I’ve compiled over the years. I think it’s been fairly good.”
Wherever Kluwe lands, he wants his next team to know he’ll be dedicated to his job but that he won’t stifle his opinions on topics he feels strongly about.
“I’m not going to lie to another team and tell them, ‘No, I’m never going to say anything,’ ” Kluwe said. “But what I can tell them is that everything I’ve tweeted, everything I’ve ever put out there have been things I’ve been very careful to keep them away from the organization.
“I’ve always spoken for myself. I’ve never said anything denigrating about coaches or players or management or whatever. It’s simply speaking up on things I feel strongly about.”
Kluwe could not say for sure whether voicing his opinions so frequently had become a catalyst for his release. But he’s hopeful that was not the case and that it won’t deter other organizations from giving him an opportunity.
“That would be a pretty disappointing to see in the NFL,” he said. “As athletes, we have an opportunity to be role models. And I think we have a platform to do a lot of good in the world by taking advantage of the opportunity to speak out on important societal issues. I’d hate to think that would be considered a major distraction on equal footing with all the arrests that go on around the league.”