Fall weather has essentially come and gone in Minnesota, which means that winter cold is here to stay for the remainder of the football season. Locals know that in the north winter means freezing temperatures and snow, which can create a lot of problems for football players in the conditions.
People will often talk about how cold weather will affect quarterbacks throwing the ball and wide receivers trying to catch them. But another part of the game that is affected a great deal is the kicking game. Both punters and placekickers have to adjust their games to the snow and the cold and Minnesota’s winter weather makes things a lot more difficult for them.
“It’s not fun,” said Minnesota Vikings placekicker Blair Walsh. “It’s going to go about 5 yards less, usually. It depends on how cold it could possibly get. You just have to come to terms with it, that it’s not going to go as far as you want it to, and as long as you’re hitting a straight ball, though, you can cut through it.”
Both Walsh and punter Jeff Locke had to adjust their games a lot last season when the Vikings moved to the outdoors in TCF Bank Stadium while their new stadium gets built. Walsh is from Florida and played his college ball at Georgia, and Locke is from Arizona and played his college ball at UCLA, so neither one really had to deal with kicking in the cold until the Vikings drafted them.
Both said that the biggest thing is trying not to do too much. When it’s cold out the ball is not going to go as far and some players will try to overpower their kicks to add the extra distance. That often does more harm than good, though, because when they over-kick the ball their mechanics often get screwed up, which then leads to poor punts more often than not.
Locke admitted that he often tried to do too much last year later in the season when it got cold out and that led to multiple mistakes on his part.
“I would try to hit it harder in the cold, and you can’t do it,” he said. “You just kind of have to accept that you’re going to get a little less distance on it and just try to hit a good ball still. You can’t try to overdo it in the cold, which is where a lot of guys get in trouble.
“But, yeah, I think I learned the hard way that first year playing in some of the cold games.”
Apart from the leather on the balls becoming harder in the cold, punters have to make sure their hands stay warm. Anyone who has lived in Minnesota or any other northern state knows that when your hands get numb it is difficult to do almost anything with them.
It would make handling a football very difficult, let alone trying to catch and handle a snap coming right at you. That is why Locke will always try to keep his hands in the warmer around his waist as long as he can so he doesn’t have to expose his hands to the cold, dry air and risk fumbling the snap and hurting his team.
The same goes for when he is holding the ball on a field goal attempt. He keeps his hands in his warmer for as long as possible so he can maintain feeling in them. But he also wears gloves when he is holding the ball for Walsh.
Another factor the cold plays in the kicking game is how it affects the field. Luckily for kickers, most NFL fields now have heating coils under the field in outdoor stadiums so kickers never have to worry about kicking on a frozen field, but heating coils also create their own set of problems.
“If it’s actively snowing in the game it will feel like it’s been raining because the heat of the field is melting it if you don’t get it off in time,” Locke said. “My rookie year we played at Baltimore and it was snowing during the game but then the field was heated and melting it, so every time we were kicking I was going out with a towel and I was wiping down everything and making sure it was dry. Even though it was turf, I was making sure it was as dry as possible because it’s tough for Blair to be aggressive and confident when the field’s sliding on him.”
Walsh never tries to think of the field conditions when he goes out to kick, though. He said that if he has to worry about losing his footing then he has the wrong equipment on, and he is very happy with the work the Vikings equipment staff does for every game.
“I like a football cleat on the left because I attack the ball pretty hard and it helps keep my left foot under control and keeps it from slipping and sliding,” Walsh said. “Sometimes soccer cleats, especially now, are kind of flimsy, so on that left foot you want something more stable.”
Locke also doesn’t think about his plant foot slipping on wet playing surfaces because he isn’t attacking the ball the way Walsh is. Instead, his plant foot comes in contact with the ground more gently.
Where the wet field concerns him the most is when he is spinning the ball while holding for a field goal and making sure the laces are pointing out.
“When it’s really wet you’ve got to be very careful about when you have to spin the ball for the laces because it’s going to spin more and it’s going to try to spin out,” he said. “So you’ve got to really get used to the amount of pressure you need on a ball when you’re spinning it when it’s really wet. So that kind of does make it a little more difficult.”
Both Locke and Walsh had to go through some growing pains when learning how to kick the ball outdoors in the cold, but having a season under their belts at TCF Bank Stadium has helped their confidence. They feel as though they understand what they need to do to be successful in cold-weather games.
With four of their five remaining games taking place in open-air stadiums in the north – one at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and three at home – the Vikings kickers’ ability to kick in the cold could become a key part to either the team coming away with a win or a loss, and ultimately making it to the playoffs.