When it comes to specialists – kickers, punters and long snappers – it seems like the only time they get a lot of attention is when they do something wrong.
A bad snap. A bobbled hold. A missed field goal. A shanked punt. In an age of specialization and the anticipation of perfection, outside of a game-winning field goal, throngs of media tend to only swarm around specialists when they’ve screwed up.
Blair Walsh has been the subject of plenty of media scrutiny and basting in the world of social media. In 2014, as the Vikings moved into TCF Bank Stadium, Walsh was building a strong career for himself. In his first two seasons, he had made 90 percent of his field goal attempts (61 of 68) and had put himself in the NFL record books making all 10 of his field goal attempts from 50 yards or more.
Since then, it’s been significantly downhill. Last year, he missed 9 of 35 field goals – a make percentage of just 74.3 percent, the lowest accuracy percentage of any kicker with enough attempts to qualify for the league leader board.
In the preseason, he missed 6 of 11 field goal attempts, and in Monday’s loss to San Francisco he missed a 44-yard field goal six minutes into the game that would have given the Vikings an early lead.
Walsh has owned the mistakes but said he isn’t letting his lack of consistent success get the best of him, especially just one game into the 2015 season where misses come with consequences.
“It’s not frustrating, it’s just something you want to correct, that’s all,” Walsh said. “You can’t get flustered after one game. You don’t try to do big-time changes or big-time stuff right now. That would be a big mistake. I think I’ve just got to correct little errors and move forward.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer has maintained confidence in Walsh but after Monday’s miss said the struggles are “worrisome.” Walsh is doing his best to compartmentalize his struggles – forgetting his sub-par 2014 season and his brutal preseason.
“It’s turning the page and starting the season,” Walsh said. “I still feel good. I’m going to (TCF Bank) Stadium (this afternoon) to get some work in for this weekend and take one game at a time. It’s not for lack of effort or trying. I’m going to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability. That’s what I’m expected to do.”
Walsh had a similar stage of missing field goals while at Georgia, but he was able to pull himself out of his tailspin and, by the time he was draft-eligible, there were a handful of NFL teams looking to select him – which is why the Vikings used a sixth-round draft pick on him to make sure they landed him.
His focus at this point is something that goes against logic and reason – not overthinking the process. For an elite kicker, things are supposed to go the exact same way every time. When tweaks to that formula start factoring in, it is just as likely that more mistakes will happen.
As a result, Walsh is doing his best to block out the distractions and try not to keep his memory of previous mistakes in his mind.
“It is hard to not overthink things,” Walsh said. “You care so much about it and you put so much attention into your craft – into your detail of what you’re doing. You have to sort of turn your brain off and rely on everything you’ve built on up until that point.”
Part of his process is getting a comfort zone playing at The Bank. He spent his first two years in the Metrodome and, when the Vikings announced they were moving into a new stadium and would spend two years on the campus of the University of Minnesota, it didn’t take long for Walsh and punter Jeff Locke to discover that there are a ton of quirks in the U of M stadium.
The stadium wasn’t constructed with the NFL in mind and was retrofitted into the U of M campus. It has large openings at different ends of the stadium and is prone to swirling winds. In his second year in TCF Bank Stadium, he feels he has picked up on several of the unique nuances that are in the stadium.
“I definitely feel like we have a little better handle on it,” Walsh said. “We’ve been in there a couple of times in the offseason. Every time you go in there you get a little more comfortable with it. That’s why I’m going down there.”
Unlike most other players in the NFL, a kicker is a lonely position. You’re effectively working with only a threesome of specialists and the pressure of a game-tying or game-winning kick can be intense. But all athletes know the microscope they’re under and it’s simply part of the job description.
“You have to understand that playing football or any professional sport,” Walsh said. “You have to be able to take the accountability when it’s good and when it’s bad. I understand that and I understand why people are concerned and want to pay attention to the misses. I’ve got to face it like a man and just move forward.”
For the time being, the coaching staff is keeping the faith that Walsh will turn things around and return to being one of the game’s most prolific field goal kickers. He is keeping the same mindset and has broken down his performance to taking each kick as its own entity in hopes of trying to string field goals together.
It all starts with one kick and Walsh is focused on making his next kick the start of something good.
“I just think it’s going to take a couple of kicks to go through in a row – three or four field goals in a row,” Walsh said. “I think it’ll get right back on track. That’s what I’m starting to do, just say, ‘Hey! Put one make on top of another.’ Finish a game with a make, go out there and make your next kick. All of the sudden, you’re saying, ‘Hey! That’s two in a row, three in a row.’ That way you can build yourself out of it.”