Kluwe endures rough season diplomatically

Punter Chris Kluwe was called out midway through the season for failing to punt a couple of balls out of bounds, one of which ended up being returned for a touchdown. After all the trials, he emerged from the 2008 season looking to improve and put the internal criticisms behind him.

Chris Kluwe's 2008 season was about as erratic as the coverage teams that were put in place to help him out.

Kluwe was one of the league's best in gross punting average – he ranked fourth at 47.6 yards. That mark set the franchise record and bested his previous career high of 44.7 yards. He also boomed 33 punts of 50 yards or more, breaking his own team record from 2007.

But, thanks in part to irregular coverage teams and sometimes outkicking those same players, Kluwe also ranked among the lowest in net punting average at 35.0 yards.

"I'd like to get a little more hang time on it. I felt that some of my kicks could have been easier for our guys to cover them if I would have put it up there a little bit higher," Kluwe said. "It's one thing I'm always trying to improve on because obviously the higher you kick it, the easier it is for your guys to get down there and cover it. It's one of a couple things I'll be working on this offseason."

Kicker Ryan Longwell wasn't quite so quick to place all the problems with the punt coverage on hang time. He said Kluwe is a weapon that you don't want to disarm by simply having him kick it high (and not as long).

"It's a combination. You can argue that the Atlanta guys kick it straight up in the air for 43 yards, but when you're doing it from your own end the other team's getting the ball at the 40-yard line – Kluwe can change field position, which is the name of the game in the NFL," Longwell said. "We need him to change field position and he has a really good knack for putting it inside the 10-yard line. So you need to cover better, you need more hang time at times, but Kluwe's such a weapon that you hate to handcuff him too much."

The Vikings coaches had been working with directional punting since Brad Childress' coaching staff took over for Mike Tice's crew to start the 2006 season. Special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro continued to talk about how Kluwe had improved in that area, but after the New Orleans Saints game the Vikings brought in a parade of punters the following week to put the heat on Kluwe.

During that game, Reggie Bush returned two punts for touchdowns and nearly did it a third time. Vikings coaches said that Kluwe was supposed to punt two of those out of bounds.

It was a public calling-out of Kluwe that had some players offering support to Kluwe. Asked about the season as whole after it had ended, Kluwe was diplomatic.

"There's been some ups and downs," Kluwe said with a laugh. "Some ups and downs."

Kluwe recovered from that dressing-down and had a better second half of the season.

"You've just got to keep going, go onto the next game, put it out of your mind and not let it affect you because if you let things that happened in the past affect you, you're not going to be in the league very long," he said. "You have to be able to just put it all behind you and move forward."

Longwell was right there backing Kluwe and helping him endure the public scrutiny.

"I think he's done great, I really do," Longwell said after season. "He was thrown into the fire with the whole thing in New Orleans and, whatever your opinion, whether that was right or wrong, that's tough for a guy to have to go through that to be singled out. I think he's bounced back. His numbers were incredible this year, but he's one of the 11 guys that is responsible for shutting down the punt returner and his job is just as important as the guys who are running and covering it, and Cullen snapping it, so I think he handled it well. Kluwe's a young guy still. He's a guy that is learning more and more every year and will get better and better."

If adversity makes the man stronger, Kluwe just might be better in 2009.

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