There’s a smoothness in the 1.3 seconds it takes new Vikings holder Britton Colquitt to snatch a long snap out of the air and pin it to the ground.
Such reliability has been elusive in Minnesota. A work-in-progress special teams will have a different coordinator, kicker, punter/holder, long snapper and punt returner than it had for last year’s opener when the Vikings kick off the season Sunday against Atlanta.
Kicker Dan Bailey, guaranteed nothing but $250,000 on a one-year contract signed this offseason, came in during last season. He kept his job through the August trade for Kaare Vedvik; a rotation of inexperienced holders in former punter Matt Wile and receiver Chad Beebe; and a poor training camp he washed away with a clean preseason (9-for-9 on extra points and field goals).
“Were there some days I wish I could burn from camp? Sure,” said Bailey, entering his ninth NFL season. “But I think overall I felt like I’d done somewhat well and had been making good contact and hitting good balls.”
Bailey, still the NFL’s fifth-most accurate kicker (86.6%) of all time, knows what works. And he pinpointed why the Vikings’ three-week experiment with Vedvik did not.
“You have to find guys that work well together and have that chemistry,” Bailey said. “It was a matter of finding that, and hopefully we’re onto something here with the three guys we have right now.”
Last year’s 32nd-ranked field-goal operation was tweaked as recently as last weekend, when the Vikings signed the 34-year-old Colquitt, an AFC Pro Bowl alternate for the Browns last season, to replace Wile as punter and holder. Marwan Maalouf, the Vikings’ first-year special teams coordinator, said there already has been a noticeable difference.
“Britton’s personality brings out some liveliness in everybody,” Maalouf said. “There’s no awkward silence or anything like that. The guys have a good time. He adds a little bit of a relaxed nature that maybe wasn’t here with the other guys that we’ve had.”
Chemistry on the fly
Bailey, 31, pinned many of his career-worst seven missed kicks last season on jumping in midseason as a Week 3 signing to replace Daniel Carlson. He entered the offseason happy about the chance to find a rhythm this summer with Wile and former long snapper Kevin McDermott.
He hit the reset button last week with Colquitt and rookie long snapper Austin Cutting.
“You’d love to have more time if you can get it, but we have one week,” Bailey said. “I’ve been doing this for a little bit, [Colquitt] has been doing it for a little bit as well. Experience is going to be in our corner as far as that goes, and we’ll just try to make the best of it.”
Perhaps the Vikings found a best-case scenario in Colquitt — the fourth punter in four years — to stop the revolving doors. The veteran, who has also held for nine NFL seasons, asserted himself immediately onto the Vikings’ field-goal operation. Having learned Bailey likes holds “pretty straight up and down,” Colquitt offered advice in his first week of practices to help mitigate wind.
“If there’s a crosswind to the left, I told him if I tilt the ball a little bit into the wind, he’s going to hit a straighter ball,” Colquitt said. “Little things like that that I’ve learned from kickers in the past: [Matt] Prater, Brandon [McManus], my brother [Dustin Colquitt], that those things kind of help.”
Former Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, a hire by head coach Mike Zimmer, was also added to the equation as a part-time kicking consultant this offseason. Kaeding works with Vikings specialists a few days a week, a role that has continued into the regular season. He commutes from his Iowa City home for practices and teaches players via FaceTime regarding adjustments on film.
Kaeding is also working with undrafted rookie Chase McLaughlin, an addition to the Vikings practice squad who further clouds the future at kicker.
“You always get to learn something new,” Maalouf said. “[Kaeding] coaches youth kickers as well and you’d be surprised at how many interesting drills that he can bring that kind of keep everything fresh and keep it lively for the guys that have been doing it for so long. It always challenges them, which I think is important.”
Standards to uphold
Maalouf, who spent six seasons as a Dolphins assistant after a one-year stint as Colts special teams coordinator in 2012, faces a couple of high standards to uphold in his second go as a lead coach.
The Vikings annually ranked among the NFL’s best in special teams returns and discipline in eight seasons under former coordinator Mike Priefer, whose contract expired in January. The Vikings let him take the same job with his hometown Cleveland Browns.
For three straight seasons, Vikings special teams were among the league’s least-penalized groups, including just seven flags accepted last season — the fewest by any NFL team since 2009. The Vikings, overall, were the league’s second-lowest penalized team this preseason.
“Part of it is how you educate them, teaching them what’s legal and not overemphasizing what’s illegal,” Maalouf said. “How to block it legally, let’s say. I think that has a lot to do with it. But they’ve done a great job here in the past and we hope to keep building on it.”
The Vikings also fielded a top-10 punt return team each of the past three seasons, but decided to move on from longtime returner Marcus Sherels, who was injured and let go on cutdown day by New Orleans.
The preseason did not provide an answer, so the Vikings plan to deploy upward of three punt returners early in the regular season, according to Maalouf, as they continue evaluating running back Ameer Abdullah and receivers Beebe and Olabisi Johnson.
“Hopefully you graduate to a position where one guy does the majority of it,” Maalouf said. “But for now, I think it’s important we take advantage of all the talent we have and get those guys on the field, depending on the situation.”