The Purple didn’t hand Blair Walsh his pink slip as was expected Monday. But the Vikings did wave it under the embattled kicker’s nose for the world to see Tuesday. By Wednesday, they had slipped it back into their holster for future use, if necessary, while expressing belief in Walsh.
That’s some whirlwind of a week. Now what?
“I wish I could say I had an idea,” coach Mike Zimmer said when asked how he thinks Walsh will respond. “But I don’t.”
A team with an injury-riddled offense ranking 25th in scoring (19.4) heads to Washington (4-3-1) on Sunday while still leading the NFC North at 5-3. But the pressure of a three-game losing streak oozes from an entire squad whose blueprint for success — winning close, low-scoring games — is threatened by an out-of-sync kicker who has seven misses in eight games since that errant, infamous 27-yarder in the closing seconds of a 10-9 playoff loss to Seattle.
On Tuesday, two days after Walsh missed a PAT, had an offline field goal blocked and botched a critical kickoff, the Vikings spent 1 hour and 20 minutes trying out six free-agent kickers: Randy Bullock, Travis Coons, Kai Forbath, Zach Hocker, Marshall Koehn and Aldrick Rosas.
“That’s a record for me,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “I’ve seen three or four punters. Three or four long snappers. But never six in one day.”
So — good, bad or potentially ugly — yet another layer of pressure has been added to an already tense situation. What say you, Blair?
“I’m not going to talk about my feelings about that stuff,” Walsh said when asked about the kicker tryouts and Zimmer’s decision to discuss Walsh’s shaky status on the roster in blunt terms Monday. “All I’m here to do is make kicks and help this team win. That’s how I feel.
“You might not like that answer. It might be boring, and it might not help for what you guys [media] want to talk about, but that’s really what I need to do. Make kicks and help this team win. That’s it.”
Priefer said Tuesday’s tryouts were “excellent” and that it gives the Vikings a shortlist of kickers “in case of injury or something bad happens.”
So, again, now what?
“I think it will light a fire under Blair,” Priefer said. “You bring in people to take his job, there’s two ways he can react. One, he’s going to get that chip on his shoulder and go prove the Vikings don’t need to worry about him. Or he can go in the tank. If he goes in the tank, we don’t want him anyway.”
If that sounds like a ruthless, big-boy challenge, well, that’s because this is the NFL.
“I’m always going to be positive,” Priefer said. “No matter what position you play on special teams, I’m going to set you to a higher standard and hopefully you fulfill that standard. If not, we have to find someone else.”
A history of this
Kickers have played their part in torturing this proud but tormented fan base over the years.
Even the beloved Fred Cox, who kicked at a time when expectations for successful field goals hovered around 60 percent, wasn’t immune. Some old-timers have noted Cox missed six of nine attempts in five losses decided by three points or fewer in 1972, the year the Vikings went from Super Bowl aspirations to missing the playoffs at 7-7.
Expectations were raised considerably by 1998. And Gary Anderson swung his right leg into 107 total attempts that year. He was successful on the first 106 but is remembered for missing No. 107, a 38-yarder wide left late in regulation of an overtime loss to the Falcons in the NFC title game.
And who can forget the Mike Tice era? Even the big, lovable lug of a coach teased himself about how kickers were his Achilles’ heel.
Of course, Tice probably gave as much torment as he received. When Doug Brien missed two PATs in a loss to Buffalo early in the 2002 season, Tice called in to a postgame radio sports show to criticize his own kicker. Brien was released the next day and replaced by 43-year-old Anderson, who made only three of eight attempts from 40-49 yards that year.
A year later, in 2003, Tice gave a shot to young Aaron Elling, who had been trying to break into the league since 2001. Elling had tryouts with Seattle, Jacksonville, Chicago and Buffalo before landing the Vikings job, giving Tice a rookie kicker and a rookie punter in Eddie Johnson.
“Looking back, I owe everything to Coach Tice for taking a chance on me,” said Elling, who made only 18 of 25 field-goal attempts (72 percent) that year. “I probably wish he had done a few things different in how he handled kickers. We were both rookies, so it was tough.”
Elling believes his leg was overworked in practice. He also discovered as he later bounced around the league that Tice’s motivational tactics were unique, to say the least.
“He’d squirt you with a water bottle as you’re kicking and stuff like that,” Elling said. “You’d be lining up to kick and he’d go walking between me and the holder. He’d do that all the time. So annoying.
“I get it. You’re trying to play head games. But a guy walking between you and your holder never happens in a game. Never.”
Tice wobbled through 2004 with 44-year-old Morten Andersen missing four attempts beyond 30 yards, and 2005 with Paul Edinger missing nine attempts, including five from 30-39 yards.
When Brad Childress replaced Tice in 2006, a decade of calm at the kicker position began when Childress made the signing of Packers free agent Ryan Longwell his top priority.
Longwell’s steadiness gave way to Walsh’s All-Pro rookie dominance in 2012, when he missed only three of 38 attempts (92.1) while setting an NFL record by making all 10 of his attempts from 50 yards or longer.
“Blair is a victim of his own success,” Longwell said. “It’s all about rhythm. He is fast into the ball. But when he’s in rhythm, he’s among the best of the best.
“I think when you bring in six kickers and you don’t sign one, it tells me they realized maybe what they have is not that bad if they can just get him back in rhythm.”
But that’s not the case now. Walsh is making 75 percent of his field-goal attempts (12 of 16) and 81.3 percent of his PATs (13 of 16). Hence the first mass kicker tryouts since probably the Tice era.
On Tuesday, Priefer had the six tryout kickers moving at a rapid pace. Each hit three kickoffs and 15 field-goal attempts between 25 and 55 yards.
The life of a kicker
Elling, a 38-year-old now selling medical devices near Detroit, knows all about those kinds of days. He spent nearly nine years trying to make it in the NFL but kicked in only 33 games, including 23 for the Vikings. After 2003, he played 17 games as a kickoff specialist over two seasons with the Vikings, Titans and Ravens but had stints with Atlanta, Cincinnati and Oakland before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in 2008.
“It would probably take me less time to tell you the teams I didn’t try out for,” Elling said. “Even after I tore my ACL, I had five more tryouts in a year before I finally told people I needed to get a real job.”
Elling said a lot of the tryouts he went on were to motivate a team’s current kicker.
“I’m sure [Zimmer] watched the film on Monday and said, ‘It’s time to look at guys,’ ” Elling said. “Unfortunately for him, there isn’t a whole extra bag of good kickers out there. They’re floating around for a reason, like I was. I tell people my career would have been longer if my kicks had been straighter.”
He wasn’t alone.
“You fly in the night before and it’s funny because you end up traveling to all these teams and literally seeing the same guys every week,” he said. “The time it took and the number of kicks would vary. But you kick with the same guys and then ride in the little black car back to the airport. You get out, walk in and say, ‘Hey, man, see you next week.’ ”
How Walsh kicks beginning Sunday could help determine whether the Vikings are helping him out of his slump or burying another unneeded thought inside of his head.
“I don’t think trying out six kickers helps at all,” Elling said. “The last thing you want is to be thinking is, ‘If I miss this kick, somebody’s going to take my job.’ That’s a problem.”
Meanwhile, Longwell said the “mental tricks” that teams play probably don’t affect experienced kickers.
“Blair’s smart enough to know there is no two-deep at kicker,” Longwell said. “Kicking is the rare position where there is no C grade. It’s A or F, and everybody sees it.”
Although Zimmer has no idea which direction this saga will proceed, he said he isn’t counting Walsh out.
“I do know this kid is pretty confident in his abilities,” Zimmer said. “And he wants to prove people wrong.”
After what transpired Monday and Tuesday, one of those persons might be Walsh’s own head coach.