Walsh meeting pressure with success

Blair Walsh isn't the most celebrated of the Vikings' rookies, but he is the most surprising to many. He is one of the most accurate kickers this year and hasn't missed beyond 50 yards while on pace to set an NFL record.

Of all the Vikings rookies that have made contributions to the 2012 team, it could be argued that one had stood out above the rest. One might think it would be Matt Kalil, who has quickly become a bookend left tackle, or maybe Harrison Smith, the best playmaker the Vikings have had at safety since they opted not to re-sign Darren Sharper.

But perhaps the most impactful rookie on the Vikings roster is kicker Blair Walsh. Nine games into the season, Walsh has made 19 of 20 field goals, is fourth in the NFL in scoring with 76 points and second in the league with 35 touchbacks on kickoffs.

When Kalil and Smith arrived to the Vikings, their success was predicted. Walsh came to the Vikings with no such security. As a sixth-round draft pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot … not by a long shot. More sixth-rounders don't make NFL rosters than do, but general manager Rick Spielman was convinced Walsh could be the next Vikings kicker – so much so that he released veteran Ryan Longwell, a dependable kicker and popular teammate among the Vikings players.

Walsh was more than a little bit intimidated by the decision, knowing that, as much as he had to prove himself to begin with, now the pressure was on because he was replacing one of the most dependable clutch kickers in the league.

"It was definitely difficult at first because Ryan was so good and so respected," Walsh said. "Eventually, you just have to block it out and do your job. Fortunately for me, I had Cullen Loeffler and Chris Kluwe to make me feel comfortable and helped me fit in with the rest of the guys on the team. It would have been much worse without them, but they've been great and I have a lot of respect and gratefulness to both of them."

Trying to assimilate into the Vikings roster was a bit easier because of the veteran blood-letting the Vikings undertook in the offseason. There was a youth movement afoot everywhere, from the offensive line to the receiver corps to the secondary. However, with responsibility came expectations and replacing one of the league's most dependable kickers brought incredibly lofty expectations – not just from the Vikings, but from Walsh himself.

"I had a high standard for myself coming in because of the whole Ryan thing," Walsh said. "The organization showed so much confidence in me – they cut Ryan and didn't bring anyone else in to challenge me. They made it pretty clear it was my job to win or lose and that has meant a lot to me knowing that they had that kind of faith in me. I've just been trying to live up to that faith ever since."

The faith the Vikings put in Walsh was due in large part to a freakishly strong right leg. They were confident he could kick field goals with passable accuracy, but the goal was to make it so Vikings opponents wouldn't return kickoffs. Through nine games, Walsh has kicked off 47 times. Only 12 of them have been returned.

You can call it the Rick Ratio. From draft weekend on, that was what was expected of Walsh and he has delivered.

"I think that was the key thing in the Vikings drafting me," Walsh said. "(Longwell) was one of the most consistent field goal kickers in the league, but he had a lot of kickoffs returned. A long kickoff return can change a game in an instant. It not only is a problem for the special teams, but it puts the defense on a short field, and if they score points because of it, it puts more pressure on the offense. You're giving the other team momentum. That's a bad recipe. Any time you can get a touchback or pin them inside the 20 if they try to return it, it's something you can take advantage of."

There isn't much that Walsh hasn't done. He has made 19 of 20 field goal attempts and all 19 of his extra points. Yet, when it came to naming his midseason All-Pro Team, Peter King of Sports Illustrated named a rookie kicker to his squad. It wasn't Walsh; it was Greg "the Leg" Zuerlein of the St. Louis Rams. Walsh has made 19 of 20 field goals. Zuerlein has made 17 of 20. Walsh is 5-for5 kicking field goals of 50+ yards. Zuerlein is 5-for-7. Walsh has 76 points. Zuerlein has 61. Yet, he made King's team.

Walsh didn't feel disrespected by his exclusion from the team. As he sees it, midseason honors are forgotten by the end of the year. Let's wait until all the votes are counted before "The Leg" is deemed the Golden Toe.

"I know Greg and we get along great," Walsh said. "He's had good success there and we'll let the stats speak for themselves at the end of the year. Midseason doesn't matter as much as final season. I'd like to think I've done a pretty good job, but as long as I keep making kicks and doing my job, I'm not really too worried about it."

To his credit, when asked if he remembers the one of 39 kicks he missed, Walsh went stone-faced and immediate responded, "Detroit, 46 yards, wide left." You know you're good when you remember your failures (or, in his case, lone failure) more than your successes. Perhaps the most impressive thing Walsh has accomplished – it takes a lot to beat four touchbacks a game – is make all five of his long distance field goals of 50 yards or more, including a pair of 55-yarders.

Considering that eight is the all-time single-season NFL record for field goals of 50 yards or beyond (set by former Viking Morten Andersen in 1985), Walsh could be on the brink of NFL history. But, in his mind, those are the kicks most stressful. You have to boom the kick and, in most cases, kick it lower than normal to get a gradual torque upward so it has the distance to make it. The fact he has made every one he has attempted is a tribute to his clutch ability.

"Those are the ones that have the most pressure," Walsh said. "Not only are you at the edge of your limit for kicking field goals, if you miss it, you set the other team up at the 40- or 45-yard line and give them a short field to work with. There isn't much margin for error on any kicks, but, when it's a long field goal, that margin for error is even smaller. That's why I've been happy with that part of it."

At season's end, when analysts look back at the Vikings 2012 draft class and what they accomplished as rookies, Kalil will likely head the list for praise of the Vikings' draft. Smith won't be far behind. But, considering both of them were viewed as upgrades over what the Vikings had the year before prior to them ever stepping on the practice fields of Mankato, they have met expectations. Walsh has exceeded everyone's expectations … except, perhaps, his own.

"All I want to do is help this team have a chance to win," Walsh said. "There are kicks I've had that I wish I could have back. It doesn't work that way. I want to be someone that, when Coach (Leslie) Frazier says, ‘Go in' that I deliver what he is expecting of me. I expect to do that every time. That's the only way you can play this game."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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