It’s not a Minnesota Vikings season without a little special teams drama.
The Vikings haven’t had the same three specialists for two consecutive years in the Mike Zimmer Era. Since 2014, they’ve made two long-snapping changes, two punting changes and three kicking changes — and either of the latter two could change again in the coming days.
The special teams situation is as muddled as ever. Zimmer’s recent statement that return and coverage units need to “get their rear ends in gear” barely registered as notable special teams news since the kicking, punting and holding positions remain unknown.
While snapping and punting have been far from stable, the kicking situation remains the murkiest for the 2019 team — and the franchise as a whole.
Acquired for a fifth-round pick just two weeks ago, Kaare Vedvik has quickly become a tumultuous prospect, missing two field goals in Saturday’s third preseason game and enduring struggles in practice as the Vikings experiment with different holders and pit Vedvik against last year’s kicker Dan Bailey while also trying him out against last year’s punter Matt Wile.
“I don’t think its instability,” said special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. “If you look around at what’s going on around the league, there’s a lot of teams that are very unaware of who their kicker is going to be, or unsure. I think we use all this time just to evaluate the guys, as Coach Zimmer said last week and like I stated before, we have to use every single week to evaluate. Every single minute that we have with these guys is used to evaluate them and get them as many reps as possible. There’s a lot of teams who are unsure of who their kicker is going to be or who their punter is going to be.”
Zimmer frankly said he was “at a loss” after Saturday’s game, which is likely an honest assessment considering what the Vikings have faced in almost every preseason of Zimmer’s tenure. In his first year as coach, the battery was well-established with snapper Cullen Loeffler, punter Jeff Locke and kicker Blair Walsh. Since then, the Vikings have faced decision-making junctures at the kicking position virtually every Labor Day weekend, and they’ve seemingly reacted to those situations with increasing urgency. Perhaps to a fault.
“I’ve got to have more patience, probably,” Zimmer said Tuesday.
Let’s review the team’s recent kicking decisions, then reevaluate what they face at the present moment.
Even though Blair Walsh was coming off a career worst 74.3 percent on field goals in 2014, the second-worst percentage in the NFL, the Vikings did more than stick with Walsh — they extended him before the ensuing season. The thinking was that TCF Bank Stadium’s swirling winds were only temporary with U.S. Bank Stadium opening in 2016 and that Walsh would bounce back after showing what he could do in two years at the climate-controlled Metrodome.
After his extension, Walsh fell apart in the 2015 preseason. The fourth-year kicker missed 6 of 11 kicks, including three in one game against Oakland. But having just extended Walsh, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and the team supported him. Walsh responded by making 87 percent of his field goals that year and hitting two game-winning kicks, but everything came crashing down with his fateful 27-yard miss in the playoffs against Seattle.
As Priefer said the following preseason, “I don’t know if you ever get over something like that.” The playoff shank will define Walsh’s career, but many forget that he put together a respectable season and made three kicks previously in the freezing-cold conditions against Seattle. It’s tough to say the Vikings made the wrong choice being patient, despite the end result.
2016: PATIENCE TO A CERTAIN POINT
The Vikings were more forgiving of Walsh than the Bears were of Cody Parkey last year, when Chicago quickly released their playoff scapegoat. Minnesota hung onto Walsh after the playoff heartbreaker and seemed justified in doing so as he hit 14 of 15 kicks in the 2016 preseason. But their goodwill only lasted so long as Walsh missed one or more kicks in three of the team’s first four regular season games. After two misses in a home game against Detroit where Walsh got snippy with reporters, the Vikings worked out kickers and eventually replaced him with Kai Forbath after Walsh missed another extra point the following week at Washington.
That move came after four consecutive Vikings losses and an offensive coordinator change two games prior. The wheels were coming off, and a change at kicker seemed like part of the solution.
Forbath’s half season made a good impression as he was a perfect 15 of 15 on field goals but 11 of 14 on extra points.
2017: LIGHT COMPETITION
Maybe spooked by Forbath’s PAT struggles, the Vikings brought in big-legged Marshall Koehn to compete in training camp. It was a low-risk investment on a free agent kicker, but it created a kicking competition for the first time under Zimmer and Priefer.
Because the Vikings had little invested in Forbath — financially or from a draft capital perspective — taking a flier on Koehn gave them the flexibility to make a switch if Koehn earned the job. But Forbath won the battle after Koehn missed kicks in each of the final two preseason games while Forbath had a perfect preseason.
Again, it’s hard to say the Vikings made the wrong decision on retaining Forbath, based on preseason performances. Forbath was topsy-turvy, however, in the regular season, finishing 17th in field-goal percentage (84.2 percent) and dead last in extra-point percentage (87.2 percent). Yet his 53-yard field goal in the NFC Divisional Round against the New Orleans Saints turned out to be one of the clutchest kicks in Vikings history and earned Forbath some equity heading into the offseason.
2018: STIFF COMPETITION AND A QUICK REACTION
Forbath signed a one-year deal to stay with the Vikings, but his 11 missed kicks the year before were concerning enough that Minnesota drafted Daniel Carlson in the fifth round. Outweighing their belief in Forbath’s veteran leg was their desire to land a long-term solution at a troubling position.
Again, the Vikings staged a training camp competition. With Forbath on a non-guaranteed deal and Carlson costing a fifth-round pick, the rookie entered as the favorite and won the job thanks to his strong leg and near-perfect start to the preseason. The Vikings cut Forbath after one preseason miss, and immediately Carlson began showing cracks, missing two field goals the following week as Zimmer called him out in a halftime interview, threatening to go for two if Carlson was going to miss.
Two weeks into the regular season, it was over for Carlson, who missed three field goals — two of them potentially game-winning — in a wild overtime tie against the Packers in Green Bay. Back in 2016, Walsh missed three kicks in Week 1 against the Titans, but the Vikings stuck with him another eight games. Not the case with the rookie Carlson, who was cut in favor of veteran Dan Bailey.
Bailey didn’t provide the stability Minnesota hoped for, however. His 75 percent on field goals was the second-lowest percentage in the NFL in 2018.
If these summaries of previous seasons teach us anything, it’s that the Vikings are willing to give veteran kickers longer leashes than rookies, but they’re getting hastier at inviting competitions. The Vikings have had kicking battles for three straight training camps but have failed to get successful regular seasons out of their previous two choices, despite choosing the better preseason performer in both instances.
Their current predicament is unprecedented. They invested a fifith-round pick in Vedvik, as they did Carlson. But since his arrival, he’s arguably been out-performed by Bailey in practice, and his two in-game misses raise further questions about his competency. As a fallback, Vedvik could be the team’s punter, but he may not fulfill the team’s vision of using his massive leg as a weapon on field goals.
“Just finding out what the mistake is, that’s the biggest thing,” Maalouf said. “He understands it. He’s very self-aware which is a huge positive for a young specialist. He’s very self-aware of what he has to get corrected so that’s a positive. I think that’s the biggest thing and then reapplying it, just getting him more reps with our guys.”
The lesson way back in 2015 was that kneejerk reactions to preseason failures can be dangerous — even though Walsh’s eventual demise created a 20/20 hindsight situation. That hindsight on Walsh may be what triggered the Vikings’ quick responses in recent years to haphazard kicking; they don’t want to be burned again if they’ve already seen previous red flags. The classic Catch 22 is that veterans and young kickers alike need time to work out kinks, but teams can’t afford to develop kickers in-season when one loss could be devastating.
The Vikings presently have a veteran whose career may be in decline and a 25-year-old that is still ascending.
But who is most reliable now?
Numerous questions remain leading up to Thursday’s preseason finale. Does Bailey’s recent improvement offset his rough early training camp? How should Thursday’s game impact the team’s decision? Does Vedvik’s raw talent overshadow his numerous misses over the past week?
“I do have high expectations of myself,” said Vedvik, “and I did not perform the way I wanted to perform [on Saturday], but that’s part
of the game. You’ve got to come back and bounce back. You cannot let that stuff drag into your next game. Regardless of what happens, you have to be able to come back, keep calm and execute the way you want to execute.”
Is it too late for Vedvik to redeem himself? We’ll know within the week.