With one NFL game under his belt, Vikings rookie PK Blair Walsh met his kicking idol.
Walsh approached Colts PK Adam Vinatieri before the teams’ Week Two game at Lucas Oil Field and struck up a conversation — skipping over the part where Walsh had Vinateri’s pictures and posters festooned all over his bedroom walls as a kid. All Walsh expected was a friendly pre-game chat, but the two talked for a long time.
“Kind of a surreal moment for me,” Walsh said.
Vinatieri, the author of 413 regular-season and 48 playoff field goals (including two Super Bowl winners), was happy to talk shop with the rookie, as he likely has with dozens of kickers who have come across Vinatieri’s path in 17 pro seasons.
But none was as good in his first season as Walsh was in his. The sixth-rounder made 35-of-38 FG attempts, including an NFL-record 10-of-10 from 50 yards and beyond, and boomed his kickoffs weekly. Walsh made the Pro Bowl and was a unanimous selection for Pro Football Weekly’s Golden Toe Award, annually given to the best kicker or punter in the NFL.
“It’s really been crazy, a whirlwind,” said Walsh as he drove home from Minnesota to Florida following the Vikings’ playoff loss to the Packers. Walsh earned some down time with family before he heads to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl on Jan 27, where he’ll do the kicking for the NFC. Walsh also is paying the expenses for his long snapper, Cullen Loeffler, to join him in Honolulu with the hopes that Loeffler gets picked to the team eventually with no long snapper having been named yet.
“He’s pretty much automatic,” Vikings TE Rhett Ellison said. “He lines up, you just assume he’ll make it. Quiet and confident — we love the guy, love his style.”
It didn’t come without serious work, however. Walsh entered his senior season at University of Georgia as one of the most decorated kickers in the country, having missed only 13 of his 68 FG attempts in three seasons with range out to 53 yards. But he struggled badly in 2011, making only 21-of-35 FG attempts and missing tries from 33 (in a three-point loss to South Carolina), 33, 35 and 37 yards. Walsh also failed to connect on 10 of his 17 attempts from beyond 40 yards, despite making a 56-yarder in the third game.
“My rhythm was off. I was too fast through the ball,” he said. “I wasn’t seeing the ball long enough before I hit it.”
Frankly, Walsh wondered if he had kicked away his chances of being drafted. But he rebounded with strong workouts at the Scouting Combine, the East-West Shrine Game, his pro day at Georgia and an additional workout for scouts in Athens. The Vikings were in attendance for all and had seen plenty. They drafted Walsh with the 175th overall pick and cut longtime PK Ryan Longwell right after the draft. Walsh had gone from struggling senior to NFL starter before he ever set foot on a pro field.
“I took it more as a vote of confidence rather than an additional-pressure thing,” he said.
Walsh and special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer worked tirelessly to fix the technical flaw and fine-tune it through minicamps and OTAs.
After hiccups in the preseason (misses from 43, 45 and 49 yards), Walsh cranked it up as soon as the regular season began. He nailed a 55-yarder to send the Vikings into overtime in Week One and then won the game in OT. Walsh made 50-yard kicks in each of his first three games, earning the trust of the coaching staff to attempt — and make — long kicks.
“In talking with Mike, he was confident that those things were fixable and once we drafted him and began to work with (Walsh), we all saw that this kid had a chance to be special in a lot of ways,” Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said.
The Vikings played 10 games indoors, but Walsh made a tricky 55-yarder amid swirling Seattle winds and came back with a 56-yarder — the record-breaking ninth 50-yarder — at Houston in an upset of the Texans with the roof retracted.
The Vikings probably wouldn’t have won 10 games and made the playoffs a year after going 3-13 without Walsh’s clutch (and lengthy) kicks. Like his team, Walsh was able to turn the page completely and slay the demons of 2011.
In Week Two, with Vinatieri across the field, Walsh kicked off the scoring that day with a 51-yarder. He wondered if he had impressed the four-time champion. But in what he said will serve as a reminder this offseason of how far he still needs to go, even after a banner season. Walsh watched Vinatieri nail a 53-yarder to beat the Vikings at the end of regulation.
“Pretty appropriate,” Walsh said, “that he one-upped me.”
The veteran kicker may have posterized the rookie, but Walsh has the potential to return the favor, years down the road, to the next young gun to come along.