Sunday’s 28-27 victory over the Carolina Panthers was about as ugly as they come for Mike Zimmer and Co. This sentiment culminated on a single play with just over two minutes remaining in the game. After the Vikings defense dialed up a stop, it was time for Kirk Cousins to prove his worth by leading the team down the field for a game-winning drive.
Well, that was until Chad Beebe muffed the ensuing punt, handing Carolina another red zone possession.
Beebe would later redeem himself with the game-winning touchdown, but don’t let that distract you from Minnesota’s weekly special team’s blunder. Whether it has been muffed punts, blocked punts, bad snaps or poor coverage, every single facet of the unit has struggled this year.
While it is easy to point your finger at one guy, or even coach, more broadly the poor special teams play is a reflection on how Rick Spielman has decided to treat this unit while assembling the roster.
This trend started back in 2018 when Spielman made the decision to trade up and grab kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. Despite a strong kicking record at Auburn, Carlson struggled to start his career and was cut after an abysmal Week 2 performance that resulted in a tie against the Green Bay Packers.
Carlson was quickly scooped up by the then-Oakland Raiders, where he has enjoyed success since that game in Green Bay. While it was easy to use him as a scapegoat in the moment, the real problem was Spielman deciding to go with a rookie kicker on a Super Bowl contender in the first place.
If we go back to Aug. 11, 2019, Spielman made two transactions that amplify this trend further. The first, and more infamous of the two, was the move to trade a fifth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for kicker Kaare Vedvik. The preseason standout was meant to compete with Dan Bailey for the starting spot, but he failed to do so and was released before the 2019 season started.
The acquisition of Vedvik may have lit a fire under Bailey, who saw an improvement in accuracy from 75% to over 93%, but draft capital is a valuable commodity in the NFL, and essentially burning a fifth-round pick is not what a successful franchise does.
On that same day, the Vikings released long snapper Kevin McDermott in favor of Austin Cutting, who they had drafted in the seventh round. This despite the fact that McDermott was already indoctrinated into the franchise, and he also played the position pretty well.
Not even two seasons later, Cutting has been released due to a slew of bad snaps that have resulted in failed field goal attempts.
Spielman’s inability to fill special teams’ gaps in the draft struck again when the team needed to fill a return game void left by long-time Viking Marcus Sherels. A run on returners in the fifth round forced Spielman to take K.J. Osborn, who to this point has been less than impressive.
Not only has he been nonexistent in the return game, as he’s averaging 1.5 yards per return and fumbled the ball, but he’s also eating a roster spot since he’ll likely never touch the field as a receiver.
At this point in the season, the Vikings have to do with what they got on special teams, but going forward Spielman can’t act like these roles can be filled easily by plugging some random rookie in.
The impact of special teams on the game is often overlooked, but having guys who can be relied upon is invaluable. It’s why you see a guy like Matthew Slater stick around with the New England Patriots for so long because he is so good at what he does.
Finding consistent players on special teams isn’t always easy, but when you do find one, you have to lock them down. Drafting a new guy each year won’t cut it, and Spielman has to realize that. While it isn’t the most glamorous part of a roster, just like any other unit, it has the ability to single-handedly change a game for better or for worse.