Walsh working to avoid ‘sophomore slump'

Blair Walsh made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after setting NFL records. This year, the focus is on avoiding a slump, and his note-taking and self-correcting are part of that process.

When you're coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season in which you set NFL records, how do you follow that up?

That's the conundrum facing Vikings kicker Blair Walsh. In 2012, the rookie scored 141 points and led the NFL in field goals with 35 – making 35 of 38 field goals (92.1 percent) and set an NFL record by making all 10 of his attempts from 50 yards and beyond.

Special teams coach Mike Priefer couldn't have been happier with Walsh's performance as a rookie, but wants him to avoid a potential sophomore slump. Last year, Walsh had the luxury of playing climate-controlled conditions in 12 of 16 games. This year, the Vikings will play eight outdoor games (including one home game in London) and, in 2014-15, the majority of games will be played in outdoor conditions when the team temporarily moves to TCF Bank Stadium.

Priefer made the comparison for Walsh to longtime Lions kicker Jason Hanson. A 20-year veteran, Hanson made videos of himself each year to study and constantly tweak small elements with his kicking motion. He sees the same sort of attention to detail in Walsh.

"A lot of the things we worked on last year, he's continued to work on," Priefer said. "Blair and I spent a lot of time looking at last year – we did this in the spring – evaluating every kickoff, every field goal, every PAT, what was right and what needed be worked on. He's kept a journal and he's referred back to it continually during the spring, now in training camp and during the regular season."

Never being satisfied is an attribute Priefer has already seen in Walsh's approach to his craft and keeping copious notes of what he's doing right and wrong has helped him to the point he can self-correct his mistakes before they become habitual.

"I think it's really helped him," Priefer said. "In the spring, he was a little bit off in his footwork and basically he figured it out. It took him a couple of minutes. I asked, ‘Do you want to watch it on tape?' and he said, ‘No, I know what I'm doing wrong.' He went out the next day and fixed it."

While Walsh has raised the bar high for himself, keeping up with his impressive rookie season is something that has been a problem for other kickers and something the Vikings want to avoid.

"I don't want him to have that sophomore slump," Priefer said. "I've mentioned to him several kickers in NFL that have had wonderful rookie seasons and then gone on to have two or three poor years or are even out of the league now. Obviously, he doesn't want to be one of those guys nor do we want him to be one of those guys."

While Priefer wouldn't get into specifics, the mechanics of kickers can deteriorate quickly and very few have a lot of job security, despite strong starts to their careers. Some of the names that qualify under that list include several of the league's veteran kickers.

  • Green Bay's Mason Crosby had a strong rookie season, despite making just 80 percent of his field goals. He wouldn't make 80 percent again for four years and, coming off a dismal 2012 season in which he missed 12 of 33 field goal attempts – a league-worst 64 percent – his job is clearly on the line in training camp this year.

  • Billy Cundiff appeared to have the Dallas kicking job locked down in 2003, when he scored 99 points in 16 games, but when his field goal percentage dropped in each of the following two seasons he was cut by the Cowboys and has played with four different teams since.

  • Nick Folk appeared to have a long career ahead of him in Dallas when he made 87 percent of his field goals his first two seasons, but after a case of the yips in 2009 (missing 10 of 28 field goals) he was cut and has never recovered. He hasn't made 78 percent of his field goal attempts in any of this three years with the Jets.

  • Rian Lindell hooked on with Seattle in 2000 and responded by making 88 percent of his field goals (15 of 17) in 12 games as a rookie to win the job. Over his next two seasons, he made just 43 of 61 attempts (70 percent) and his Seattle career was over.

  • Lawrence Tynes made an impact on the 2007 champion Giants, making 85.2 percent of his field goal attempts. In the four full seasons he has played for the Giants since, he has never matched that percentage.

    The Vikings are confident Walsh won't go that route, but they are working hard to make sure that the momentum he built as a rookie carries over into the 2013 season. Priefer is convinced that won't be a worry because he and Walsh have been on the same page since he arrived in Minnesota and Walsh was aware of what is ahead of him.

    "He's a sharp kid and I think he thinks of those things ahead of time," Priefer said. "He knew beforehand some of the guys I was talking about. He said, ‘I know exactly what you're talking about, Coach. I know where you're coming from.' He was very receptive to what we were talking about. He's such a coachable kid and always wants to get better. It's very important to him. I think he took that in stride."

    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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