Many Minnesota Vikings fans have tracked the paths of the team’s former quarterbacks this season after Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater all left in free agency.
Interestingly, they could do the same with the trio of former kickers who have been released in recent years.
Current placekicker Dan Bailey is the team’s fourth in three seasons, and as Bailey struggles, the complaints have gotten more vociferous: What is it with the Vikings and kickers?
One former kicker found a new job Friday morning as Kai Forbath was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In two years with Minnesota, the 31-year-old made 89 percent of his field goals and 85 percent of his extra points, but he lost out to fifth-round pick Daniel Carlson in the preseason.
Carlson lasted two games. He missed three field goals in an overtime tie at Green Bay and was cut the following day. Bailey took his place but has made just 16 of 23 field goals, including a crucial blocked kick at Seattle on Monday. Meanwhile, Carlson has moved on to the Oakland Raiders, where he is 10 of 11 on field goals and perfect on extra points.
The man who started the kicking calamity was Blair Walsh, a former draft pick in his own right who lasted five seasons before falling apart after his inexplicable 27-yard playoff miss in 2015.
In a job where he must massage kickers’ sometimes-fragile psyches and resist the urge to over-instruct, eighth-year special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been through the ringer.
“I’m not a mental coach,” he said Thursday. “I mean, if a guy needs a mental coach he needs to go elsewhere. In fact, I’d be the last guy, you can ask my kids that. I’d be the last guy to be a mental coach expert. I’m a little emotional and get a little fired up, but at the end of the day, if that’s what a young man needs he got to find that outside of the building. I’m here to coach football.”
Carlson’s quick demise might’ve been of the mental variety, said Priefer. In his first regular season road game against a fierce division rival, he pushed three field goals to the right, including two that could have won the game in overtime.
“I think he had one bad game, and it was more mental than physical,” said Priefer. “He’s a really good kicker, and I’m happy for him. I’m proud of him. I’m not one of those guys that’s gonna be spiteful. ‘He let us down against Green Bay, I hope he has a terrible career.’ That’s not who I am.”
Carlson, though, attributed his turnaround to a subtle physical adjustment, making his motion “a little more compact,” according to Raiders reporters. At 6-foot-5, Carlson is significantly taller than most kickers, and while his “long levers” (as he coined) gave him more power, they also provided more moving parts.
Priefer claims the Vikings were also focused on compacting Carlson’s technique.
“That’s what we did here,” said Priefer. “He was really long when he got here, and we worked really hard all spring and all summer long at making him a compact approach.”
“if a guy needs a mental coach he needs to go elsewhere.”
Walsh was a different story. At just 5-foot-9, he possessed a leg initially comparable with Carlson’s. After a Pro Bowl rookie season, where he hit 10 of 10 kicks from 50 yards and beyond, he made just 80 percent of his field goals over the next five years. He has not been signed since his 72 percent season with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017.
The popular narrative on Walsh was that his 2015 playoff miss sent him spiraling under the intense criticism. He was out of a job in Minnesota midway after scuffling through the first half of the 2016 season.
But Priefer posited a different diagnosis on his former specialist.
“What happened with Blair, in my opinion, is that he lost a lot of weight,” Priefer said. “He was trying to be more fit, and when he lost the weight he lost the strength. He lost the strength, he changed his technique, and then he wasn’t as successful. That was something I tried to stop and didn’t get it stopped.”
Most pressing is the current plight of Bailey, who has missed a kick in six of the last 10 games and is 4 of 10 from 40 yards or further.
Both Priefer and head coach Mike Zimmer have expressed confidence in Bailey’s ability, who came to the team as the league’s all-time second-most accurate kicker but has since dropped to the sixth-most accurate.
“Should we be better than we are? Of course,” said Priefer. “I don’t think I’m doing anything differently than a lot of other coaches. In fact, I think I understand the craft of kicking better than most coaches, and I’m trying not to overcoach them. Certainly not overcoaching Dan Bailey, and it’s the product of the whole battery working together and being more consistent, and that includes the snapper, the holder and the kicker. Not to make excuses — they haven’t worked together long enough.”
Priefer pointed to some poor snapping the previous week from first-year punter and first-time snapper Matt Wile. The Vikings have cycled through three punters and two longsnappers in the last four seasons, a revolving door that has led to plenty of hiccups in the placekicking operation.
“We’ve just got to go out and make kicks down the stretch and do what our team asks us to do to help us win games,” Priefer said.