For all of the curses that may hang over the Minnesota Vikings, their kicker issue is the strongest.
The Vikings have struggled to find a consistent kicker since Fred Cox. They’ve tried journeymen, draft picks, and former All-Pros, but they never can find someone who can consistently put the ball through the uprights.
These struggles are well-documented. Gary Anderson‘s miss in the 1999 NFC Championship game inspired an episode of How I Met Your Mother. Blair Walsh‘s 27-yard miss on a cold day in January replays in the minds of Vikings fans on a grim loop. There’s even a contingent of fans who believe Ryan Longwell would have missed a game-winning field goal in the 2009 NFC Championship if Brett Favre hadn’t thrown an interception.
Many have tried. Many have failed. Now it’s up to Greg Joseph.
Joseph is well aware of Minnesota’s kicker curse. He missed a potential game-winning field goal early last season against the Arizona Cardinals. That kick gives Vikings fans PTSD when thinking about his 2022 season, but the truth is that Joseph showed a lot of promise.
With 33 makes on 38 attempts, Joseph’s 86.8 field goal percentage would rank second in Vikings history over the past 20 seasons. He also made several clutch kicks throughout the season, including a last-second, 55-yard field goal that saved Mike Zimmer from an embarrassing loss to the Detroit Lions. (Or at least put it off for a couple of weeks.)
Fans may gripe over Joseph’s 90% clip on extra points, but the truth is that he had a great season. Strangely enough, the only kicker with a better field goal percentage over the last 20 years was Kai Forbath (88.7%), who fell into the same strange category of good but not comforting.
So why are Vikings fans still leery of Joseph? It might have to do with the previous coaching staff.
Zimmer’s tenure with the Vikings was notoriously brutal on kickers. He inherited Walsh when he arrived in Minnesota, who was on his way to becoming one of the best in the NFL.
In his first two seasons in the league, Walsh knocked down 89.7% of his field goal attempts, including going 12 for 15 on attempts of 50 yards or more. Kicker should have never been a concern for the Vikings – until Zimmer came to town. In his final three seasons in Minnesota, Walsh’s field goal percentage dropped to 80. Take out the 2015 season, where he knocked down 87.2% of his field goals, and that number plummets to 60.7%.
Maybe it was a flaw in Walsh’s mechanics. Perhaps it was the hangover from The Shank at the Bank. Or maybe it was Zimmer’s culture that torpedoed Walsh’s career.
This turned out to be a common theme after Walsh’s departure. Missed kicks often resulted in a tryout the following week. The kicker carousel spun faster than a tire at a NASCAR race. From 2016 to 2022, kickers combined to convert just 82.1% of their field goals, and Zimmer’s blood began to boil.
The most glaring example came when the Vikings selected Daniel Carlson in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. After a couple of missed extra points during a preseason game, Zimmer went for a two-point conversion to send a message to his young kicker. Three weeks later, Carlson missed several game-winning kicks against the Green Bay Packers before Minnesota released him.
Carlson has become one of the best kickers in the NFL, converting 89.3% of his field goal attempts with the Las Vegas Raiders.
His replacement also suffered a similar fate. Dan Bailey came to Minnesota as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. In his final season with the Vikings, Bailey converted just 68.2% of his field goals, including an 0/3 meltdown (and one missed extra point) in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With this history, it’s understandable for any kicker to wilt under the pressure. That’s why Kevin O’Connell is taking a different approach.
There are several examples of how things have changed under O’Connell’s staff, but their empowerment of the kicker position is one of the biggest. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels is leading the charge, proclaiming that Joseph is sitting on the best year of his career.
“The process and approach he’s taking on each and every individual kick, you can just tell he’s really dialed in, and I’m excited for Greg,” Daniels said. “I’m thrilled to have him as my kicker. It’s going to be a heck of a year for him.”
Joseph has taken this vote of confidence into training camp. The 28-year-old knocked down seven of eight field goal attempts during practice, including a 58-yarder during Monday’s practice. While Zimmer may have lamented the miss during the press conference, O’Connell praised Joseph for his performance.
“When that toe hits that football right now, just the sound of it, I equate it a lot of times to Major League Baseball scouts,” O’Connell said after Monday’s practice. “They want to go hear the ball hit the glove or hear what it sounds like when it comes off the bat.
“Right now, when he’s kicking, it feels like you don’t even need to watch the ball; it’s going in from 50-plus. He’s in a good spot right now, and I’ve challenged him: Can you consistently work in your craft? That consistency at that position is ultimately what this whole league is striving for.”
Vikings won’t believe the hype until they see it in games that matter. The ghost of Anderson still looms over TCO Performance Center. But it’s another small step in what the Vikings hope is a big change in their history with kickers.