Before the Seahawks signed Blair Walsh, Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer received a phone call from his counterpart in Seattle. The Seahawks’ Brian Schneider wanted to know what Walsh had left.
Seattle will get more answers Friday night against the Vikings after Walsh looked like his 2012 All-Pro self with two field goals and six extra points in the Seahawks’ preseason opener last week against the Los Angeles Chargers. Meanwhile, the Vikings are still trying to move on from Walsh with what’s described as a neck-and-neck competition between kickers Kai Forbath and Marshall Koehn.
“I said I think [Walsh] has still got it, he just needed a change of scenery,” Priefer recalled. “Blair found out I said that, called and thanked me. I said, ‘Hey you’re a great kid, just keep stroking.’ He’s done a lot of great things in this league, he just needed a new place and we’ll see what happens.”
It just didn’t work out in Minnesota for Walsh, who missed nine of his last 36 meaningful attempts for the Vikings starting with the infamous 27-yard whiff that would’ve been a playoff game-winner in a 10-9 loss to the Seahawks.
Walsh’s midseason release last year opened the door for Forbath, the veteran who signed after previously competing with Koehn during a workout at Winter Park. Forbath went on to make 26 of his 29 kicks in seven games. After the season, the Vikings — still wanting competition at a key spot — signed Koehn, who was working at a carpet warehouse in Iowa during the time of his initial tryout.
Koehn had watched the broadcast of Walsh’s wide left kick at TCF Bank Stadium in the NFC wild-card game in January 2016. He didn’t know he would eventually sign in Minnesota to try to replace Walsh, but he witnessed the career arc of an NFL kicker in one game. Walsh’s impressive three playoff field goals in subzero temps evaporated with a botched high-pressure chip shot at the very end.
“I saw him make that 45-yarder. One of the coldest games ever, laces back and he drilled a 45-yarder with plenty of leg,” Koehn recalled. “So, I mean I’m a Blair Walsh fan, I still am.”
Just don’t say that too loudly in Minnesota.
During practices both current kickers are hovering around 90 percent conversion on 300-plus solo field goals and 75 percent during 11-on-11 team drills, which “needs to be better,” Priefer said. “It’s amazing how close they are. It’s incredible.”
The inexperienced Koehn has the benefit of a strong leg for kickoffs. He figures his field-goal range is around or beyond the 60-yard mark (Forbath’s NFL career long is 57 yards). But Koehn is still working to smooth out his leg swing for better ball flight and consistency.
Koehn competed last summer for the Dolphins job, but was released despite making both of his preseason field- goal attempts. In Buffalo, Koehn hit his only attempt, a 33-yard extra point.
He will continue rotating with Forbath against Seattle.
“It’s kind of weird, I’ve got a stiff ankle,” Koehn said. “So I’ve been working on my ankle flexibility, because it helps my foot-to-ball contact. Just replicating that every time, hitting the end-over-end ball. I think if I can do that, I put myself in a pretty good position.”
Forbath, the sixth-year veteran, brings the consistency NFL teams covet. That’s why the Vikings signed the 86.6 percent career field-goal kicker last year even if Koehn showed a stronger leg.
Experience? High-pressure kicks? That’s where Forbath gets the edge now on his fourth NFL team. Two years ago, Forbath made a winning, 50-yard field goal as the Saints beat the Giants 52-49. He said trying to make a good first impression often brings out his nerves the most.
“That was my first kick with the [Saints],” Forbath said. “You either get off to a good start with a team and you gain respect, or people start doubting you early.”
Forbath hopes to keep doubts about him away from the minds of Vikings followers, no matter how ingrained.
“I like it here and hope I make it last a while,” Forbath said.