Countdown to ‘Kato (Can Blair Walsh Bounce Back?)

Countdown to ‘Kato: 23 days

Each weekday leading up to Mankato (except yesterday’s holiday), I’ll be addressing one specific Minnesota Vikings talker. In case you missed it, the first edition spotlighted the Vikings’ battles at two cornerback spots.

Today’s talker: Can Blair Walsh recover from the Shank at the Bank?

Last year’s devastating miss from Walsh in the team’s Wild Card game, at the most basic level, was the manifestation of symptoms we’d observed most of the year. The kicker’s horrible preseason in which he missed six kicks in five games turned into a fairly unsteady regular season and playoffs.

Or was it?

On one hand, Walsh made a league-high 34 field goals in 39 attempts.

On the other hand, only one field goal kicker (Justin Tucker) had more opportunities than Walsh. And if we are to credit Walsh for his made kicks, then it should also be pointed out that only four NFL kickers missed more attempts than Walsh last year.

Comparing kickers is difficult since opportunities vary so greatly from team to team and are often dependent on a team’s efficiency in the opposition’s territory. For instance, Matt Prater was a great kicker last year (over 90 percent on FGs and PATs) who simply didn’t get many chances.

It seemed like Walsh was majorly thrown off by the league’s new extra point distance. At 33 of 37, Walsh was 29th in the league in extra-point percentage (89.2 percent) and never got into a rhythm on those 33-yard kicks. Throughout the season, Walsh switched hash marks to find his most comfortable spot, but never settled on one long-term. Part of that was due to weather, and part of that was due to strategy. Walsh was pulling kicks from the left hash (sound familiar?) early in the season, and when special team coordinator Mike Priefer asserted in a press conference that Walsh was not going to pull any more kicks the rest of the year, Walsh overcompensated and began pushing them.

Throughout the season, Walsh never truly found a hash that treated him well.

When Walsh missed from 27 yards in the playoff game, it was a nightmare end to a season in which the kicker could never successfully shed the baggage of his bad preseason. If he thought he was under the microscope last year, it’ll be worse this season. Walsh’s mental strength will be tested in 2016.

Fortunately for him, the Vikings’ move indoors should help. For his career, Walsh is 88.7 percent kicking in domes or stadiums with retractable roofs, versus 82.5 percent outdoors. In the coming season, only a Halloween night game in Chicago and a Christmas Eve contest at Lambeau Field are likely to provide inclement weather conditions.

But how will Walsh rebound from a mental standpoint? The Vikings’ fan base stayed generally supportive of Walsh in the aftermath of his infamous miss, probably because of Walsh’s accountability in defeat. The team also decided not to bring in a challenger to compete with Walsh, which may also boost his confidence.

Historically, however, kickers who get heavily scrutinized over famously bad misses have a very hard time bouncing back the following season.

Billy Cundiff of Baltimore egregiously shanked a game-tying field goal in the AFC Divisional Round against New England in the 2011 playoffs. He was not brought back to Baltimore and instead moved on to Washington, where he missed five of his first 12 field goal attempts before being replaced.

Mike Vanderjagt of Indianapolis missed a 41-yarder in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs against Pittsburgh. He, like Cundiff, did not return to the team and proceeded to struggle in a one-year stint with Dallas, going 13 of 18 on kicks. That was his final year as a pro.

kickers who get heavily scrutinized over famously bad misses have a very hard time bouncing back the following season

How about the two kickers in the pantheon of terrible misses: Scott Norwood (“Wide Right” in Super Bowl XXV) and Gary Anderson (you remember)? Both followed up their follies with abysmal seasons. Norwood went 18 of 29 the following season (62.1 percent) and never kicked in the league again. Anderson – after a perfect 1998 regular season with the Vikings – went 19 of 30 in ’99 (63.6 percent). For comparison, only two kickers in the past 10 years have been in the same ballpark as Norwood and Anderson in terms of having a field goal percentage that low: Olindo Mare, 58.8 percent in 2007, and Jason Elam, 63.2 percent in 2009.

Unlike the majority of these names, Walsh is still in the prime of his career and should have many years left to redeem himself. If anybody is able to buck the trend and rebound from the despair of last January, it would be Walsh, but it won’t be easy to put to rest one of the worst misses in team history. When it comes to heartbreaking losses, Vikings fans have very good memories.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen (Cumulus Media)

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