Looks can be deceiving.
If he wasn't wearing a uniform and was walking through the locker room in street clothes, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe could easily be mistaken for a media member assigned to the team or a member of the front office or public relations staff. Wearing glasses and moving quietly through the room, he usually doesn't stand out and most of what he sees of the media is restricted to the backs of their heads as they crowd around the lockers of Jared Allen, Matt Birk, Darren Sharper and other high-profile Vikings players.
He prefers it that way, much in the same way offensive linemen don't like having their names mentioned on game broadcasts. When they are mentioned, it's usually the result of something happening that was bad. Do your job perfectly and you're an O-lineman, a long snapper or a punter, being anonymous translates into "job well done."
So as the majority of the assembled media swarmed around Kluwe, it wasn't to get his take on Detroit Sunday at the Metrodome. It was to discuss the New Orleans Saints' Reggie Bush, who tied an NFL record with two punt returns for touchdowns and might have had a third had he not slipped trying to accelerate near midfield.
So incensed was Brad Childress that he was caught on video chewing out Kluwe and, following the game, when asked about Kluwe's failure to get two punts out of bounds as told to do, saying, "If he can't do that, I'll find somebody who can kick the ball out of bounds."
He wasn't kidding. At the afternoon practice, four punters were working out for the team. It was a busy day for both Childress and Kluwe, who had a one-on-one conversation about Monday's game this morning. What should have been another anonymous Wednesday with the media traipsing through the locker room became a media event – with the focus and glare of the lights putting Kluwe center stage.
"Wow, I feel like a quarterback," Kluwe joked, squinting into the TV camera lights. "And I have nothing to say about Brett Favre."
Kluwe was quick to make this time a public mea culpa for failing to do his assignment, which was to kick two of the final three punts that Bush returned – the midfield misstep and the second TD – out of bounds so there could be no return. The first missed punt was returned into Vikings territory and resulted in a field goal to tie the game. The second blown assignment was returned for a touchdown and gave New Orleans a 27-20 lead – a gaffe that would have been much harder to swallow had the Vikings lost.
"You never want to have two punts returned for touchdowns," Kluwe said. "That hurts a lot. It was an unfortunate event. I wasn't able to get the last two kicks out of bounds the way they wanted me to. It's something I've been working on. It's something I'm trying to get better at and hopefully can improve on in the future."
His confession, however, turned into a tutorial on the art of punting, which, like most things in the NFL, isn't as easy as it appears.
Kluwe explained that punts are designed to go to one of five areas – straight down the middle, to the right and left hash marks and out of bounds to the right and left. The goal is to get the punt as far as possible and getting it out of bounds. Although it is a specialty that punters do for a living, pinpoint accuracy is hard to achieve – even indoors.
"A lot of people don't realize that when you're trying to kick out of bounds, you're trying to kick to a specific point 55 yards away," Kluwe said. "You have quarterbacks that have trouble throwing the ball 55 yards away. To kick it there, it takes a little bit of luck to get where you want it to go."
The first Bush touchdown came on a play in which Kluwe did what he was instructed to – punt the ball to the hashmark and let the coverage converge on that side of the field. After Bush freelanced his way to a score, the Vikings had seen enough. The next two punts were scripted to go out of bounds. Kluwe said that he was trying to angle the kick to a spot, but simply came up short.
"I was trying to aim it about 40 yards downfield," Kluwe said. "I used the (sideline) ref as my aiming point. Sometimes with the drop, the ball doesn't go where you want it to go. That's why we play the game."
As the questions continued to come from all sides, Kluwe tried his best to explain what seemed like a simple concept – kick it hard and kick it out of bounds. That precept seemed obvious to Childress, who publicly called Kluwe to the carpet. Asked if he saw the tape of Childress chewing him out, Kluwe gave a reasonable answer, saying, "No, I haven't. I was there in person."
While Kluwe clearly failed at his job of getting the ball out of bounds, the reality of Bush's two game-changing touchdowns was that the punter was just one of 11 players on the field. There were serious breakdowns in pursuit, lane assignments and missed tackles on all three of Bush's punt returns. In the end, neither of the last two returns would have happened had Kluwe done his job properly, but there was plenty of blame to be shared. Childress addressed what the team has done in the aftermath at his press conference Wednesday.
"We had a good meeting about that with everyone and the players when they got back," Childress said. "Everything that I see is correctable. I'd be worried if you said, ‘You don't have this guy or you don't have that guy.' People want to point to Heath Farwell. Heath is a good football player. There's somebody that steps up and does that. Everything that I see I believe we can get corrected, and it's my job to correct it. That's what we're going about doing right now in terms of fundamentals, techniques, understanding what's happened to them in space and down the field, what they're looking for, training their eyes and right there at the end pulling the trigger."
Whether the quartet of punters called in to work out Wednesday is intended simply as a scare tactic or a legitimate indication that the Vikings are seriously contemplating a punting change – Kluwe has the enormous plus of being the holder on field goals and extra points and is quite proficient at it – he clearly has been put on notice. With the Chicago Bears and Devin Hester waiting on the horizon, if this is merely a wake-up call, Kluwe realizes that he still has to walk the fence of getting his best punt possible while making sure he doesn't overcompensate and kick one into the stands that gains next to nothing.
"It's a pretty delicate balancing act," Kluwe said. "You want try to get yardage out of it, but, at the same time, if you try to get too much it doesn't go out. If try to get too little, you've kicked a 20-yard punt three rows deep (in the stands) and you get yelled at for that. It's something I'm going to try to work on and hopefully be ready, because we've got Chicago coming up after Detroit and obviously I'll be asked to do it there (against Hester)."
Kluwe explained that there are different philosophies when it comes to punting. Many believe the coffin corner kicks of old are all but dead. Most teams use the technique of going for "sky punts" – kicks of 35-40 yards that are kicked so high that the coverage team can get down to the spot where a dangerous returner is before the ball comes down. Even Bush or Hester will call a fair catch if there are players in his face and others steaming downhill at them.
He stressed that specialists – be they kickers, long-snappers, punters or third-down players – are expected to produce every time and that the smallest of mistakes can have dire consequences.
"A couple of inches on your drop can translate into tens of yards down the field," Kluwe said. "It's not an exact science."
When asked if his meeting with Childress was productive or not, Kluwe said it was what most thought it would be. He said there was give and take, but that the point was made.
"I guess it was productive," Kluwe said. "Basically, he was saying ‘We need you to kick it out of bounds' and I was trying to let him know sometimes it doesn't go out of bounds. Hopefully, it's something I will work on and get better in the future."
Perhaps we'll find out how productive it was in the next day or two – whether Kluwe gets a shot at redemption or if one of the Fab Four brought in like "American Idol" contestants will make points with the judges.
Kluwe doesn't clam up
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