One year into the two-year outdoor experiment at TCF Bank Stadium, there were plenty of adjustments that needed to be made by the Vikings moving outdoors after spending more than 30 years in the climate-controlled Metrodome. But perhaps nobody had to make a bigger outside adjustment that kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke.
At times, both of them struggled to be consistent. Walsh had the lowest field goal percentage of any kicker in the league and Locke was in the lower half of punters for both gross average and net average all season. Locke did as much practice work as he could at The Bank but felt he didn’t make the adjustment soon enough to learn the nuances of the stadium – and it carried over into other outdoor games.
“I think it took me a little too long to get accustomed to TCF,” Locke said. “There were a couple of games where the winds were howling and I didn’t punt very well going into the wind. The one game that still haunts me is at Tampa Bay – all those touchbacks from the plus-50. It hurts the team because we could have pinned them deep. I feel like the last five or six games I was in the zone and on a really good stretch. I need to transfer that over the whole season next year and go forward from there.”
One of the hidden advantages that prompted the Vikings to draft Locke in 2013 was that he is a left-footed punter. It may not seem like a radical difference, but the ball coming off the foot of a lefty is a mirror image of what returners are used to. Everything is opposite and it can create an advantage for a team that has a lefty punter and can cause return men to struggle.
“A lot of it is just the way the ball fades when it’s coming down,” Locke said. “All balls look pretty much the same to the returner when they’re going up in the air. But once they hit their peak and turn over, the lefty ball falls the opposite way of the righty ball that they’re used to. Some teams bring in a left-footed punter the week they’re going up against one because it’s that much different. I would love to see if there’s a stat that there are more muffs against left-footed punters.”
TCF Bank Stadium created its own set of issues for returners and kickers alike. With a unique design that allows winds to whip through the bowl – blowing in one direction at one end of the field and another direction at the other end – it made for some interesting challenges that Locke got a handle on as the season went on and learned information that he can take forward into next season.
“Having that open end was the biggest difference,” Locke said. “If you ask punters or kickers that kick in a stadium with one open end, you get nasty winds. New England is notorious for it because they have the two open areas in the end zone. A lot of it is that you have to be able to hit a different ball. I’ve got to able to cut through the wind. A lot of it is just making the adjustment and trying to get as much as you can get given the conditions at the time.”
The worst part for players like Locke and Walsh is that, with all the extra time they have and will put in working out at The Bank, following the 2015 season, they will be heading back inside to the Vikings’ new stadium. But, as Locke sees it, they don’t play all their games inside and he sees the experience as one that both of them can learn from because there will be critical games that will be played outside in the wind and their current situation will serve them well when they’re in hostile territory outdoors.
“There’s less to control,” Locke said of kicking indoors. “I think if Blair and I can master these winds, I think we do have a competitive advantage over guys coming into TCF. We’re only going to have one more year there, but we still have to go to Green Bay and Chicago and other outdoor stadiums, so I think it will make us both better to get used to those conditions – even though we’re moving back inside after one more season. This experience is only going to make us stronger.”
Walsh, Locke learned from winds of The Bank
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