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There are times when a player makes an individual effort that doesn’t always jump off the page in the retelling of a game, but, if not for that play, the outcome may have been very different.
Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings were faced with a dilemma. They were leading by six points with less than three minutes to play and facing a third-and-14 from their own 5-yard line. The Vikings called a safe pass designed to get punter Jeff Locke out of his own end zone for a punt that would give Arizona the ball with 2:30 to play down by six points with one timeout and the two-minute warning in their pocket.
With speedy John Brown waiting to return the punt, Locke was under the gun to get off a good punt. With the line of scrimmage at his own 15-yard line, the Cardinals were likely to get the ball somewhere near midfield with the chance to make the drive that would win the game and likely salvage their season.
Instead, Locke got off the greatest punt of his life.
He launched a punt away from Brown that ended up going 72 yards – the longest punt of Locke’s professional career. Instead of Arizona getting the ball somewhere around their own 40 on a standard punt, they started from their own 13-yard line and the Vikings closed out the deal.
Locke was more than a little pleased with his punt, but he confessed there was a little luck involved.
“I got a nice little 20-yard bounce there,” Locke said. “I kind of view it as a 53-yard punt with very good hang time. That was what I felt about it. I knew we needed a big punt there. To be able to do my job to that extent in that game situation, it’s why you play the game.”
Given the situation, it would have been understandable that Locke would try to cut loose on the longest kick of his professional career.
However, he wasn’t concerned with the distance of the kick. His focus was on the height – the length just came along for the ride.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything to do with distance,” Locke said. “My only concern immediately was getting hang time. We didn’t want a big return there. The hang time was the priority. Distance was pretty secondary. I’ve definitely learned over the year that when you get in those big-time punting situations late in games, you’ve to tell yourself to relax even more because you’re so juiced and the adrenaline was flowing. I just had to be relaxed and trust that my leg was going to do what it knows how to do.”
It didn’t take long for Locke to realize that this was no ordinary punt. When you’ve hit thousands of punts, you know what is typical, what is awful and what is really, really good.
“There was something different about this one,” Locke said. “You don’t always know immediately how far or how high a kick is going to go, but I hit the sweet spot and could tell right away that was a good one. There was a deeper thud than normal and I felt it more than anything.”
In a game that will be remembered years from now for two plays of 100-plus yards – people still recall vividly that game at the Metrodome Nov. 4, 2007 that included a 109-yard return by San Diego of missed field as the first half expired, followed up by Adrian Peterson setting the single-game rushing record – what turned out to be the most important play of Sunday’s game may have been Locke’s punt and not the long scoring plays.
On a day when a lot of players did their part, Locke more than held up his end of the bargain.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team,” Locke said. “Everybody has their role to play. Some are bigger than others, but we all have our job to do. My job is to put the ball in the best possible position for our defense to be able to make plays and flip field position. I’d be lying if I said I thought I was going to have a 72-yard punt, but the timing couldn’t have better to get that one.”
Locke’s punt may not have saved the Vikings’ 2016 season, but it sure made closing out the win against Arizona a lot more possible and a lot more likely.null