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Seahawks bet on Blair Walsh. Why?

Maker and misser of clutch field goals might be primed for a bounceback because of mental fortitude

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans
deja boot
The Tennessean-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a fan of either the Minnesota Vikings or Seattle Seahawks (and the odds are frankly in favor thereof), then your lasting image of Blair Walsh, Kicker of Footballs, likely is:

because of the time he

’d in front of the whole country. (Oh man. Look at the crowd reaction. You can practically smell the fatalism.)

Well. Just as most of us would not care to be defined by the worst minute of our professional life, Blair R. Walsh deserves a look at all the other minutes he’s spent aiming for end zones and uprights. Even if he weren't a Seahawk, he'd deserve such a courtesy.

College Walsh

What led him to be a 6th-round draft pick, out of Georgia, in an age when most kickers go undrafted? Maybe the two-year hot streak that was his sophojunior year: 40-of-45 on field goals. Maybe finishing his career as the SEC’s all-time leading scorer with 412 points.

He made six tackles, too; not too bad for a scrawny 5’9” guy from suburban Miami.

Rookie Walsh-January 9, 2016 Walsh

Teams are teased for drafting kickers in the early rounds. Sometimes in any round! The Raiders might be able get away with nabbing a Janikowski in the first round, because face it, they're not going anywhere. The Buccaneers might trade up to select an Aguayo in the second round, because nobody north of Tallahassee is going to call them on it.

(You don't think the NFL is rigged. But if you ever were tempted to think it, just remember the Raiders’ only Super Bowl appearance since 1984 is a blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccafuckaneers, of all possible teams.)

So already in the spotlight, Walsh had to prove himself worthy of being the 175th pick. He did. I guess. If you call “first-team All-Pro your rookie year” an okay result.

Walsh made 35 of 38 field goal tries and 10 of 10 beyond 50 yards. At age 22.

Through two seasons, he’d missed all of nine kicks. Total. One inside of 40 yards. One! He was automatic. He was cruising through the fast lane of the Gostowski-Andersen Memorial Hall of Fame Turnpike. (That is a joke for the guy reading from New Jersey, who likes the Pats and remembers the 1998 playoffs.)

Right. Cruising. Except, kickers go through stuff. Seasons three and four of Walshy World played out like a TV show that simply couldn’t sustain its initial burst of torrid acting and sparkling dialogue, and instead defaulted into soap-opera mode to keep advancing an uncertain plot. Five short kicks were missed. He settled for an 81.1 percentage overall; he became just another kicker among many.

Still, in the 2015 season itself, Walsh made two game-winning field goals, as the Vikings topped the Bears in Week 5 and the Rams in Week 6. He finished the fateful year with a league-leading 34 makes.

And. And, and, and... he came into the playoff game vs. Seattle with a lifetime 34-of-35 mark on kicks closer than 30 yards. Yes, that's exactly like the graphic a broadcast team puts up right before probability cranes its crooked neck back into the picture.

January 10, 2016 Walsh

People often forget that Walsh had made all three of the previous kicks that fateful, arctic day. Including a 47-yarder and a 43-yarder. In one of the most meteorologically inclement settings a kicker can face.

Here’s pigskin kicker Connor Barth on making FG in the cold:

“But when you get into the colder situations, the ball's harder. Especially when it gets below freezing, the ball is just completely different. It impacts your foot; it [the ball] doesn't come off quite as well.”

Then, a perspective from the writers at insidethepylon:

“In temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a kicker’s foot can often feel like a brick without any sense of subtlety, which can be disconcerting for a kicker who has not experienced those conditions before. Furthermore, the cold often causes muscles to tense up, making it difficult to maintain a loose and fluid technique through a kick. Practicing in these conditions is critical, as there is often no adjustment to be made as far as shifting one’s approach, but rather, a kicker must learn to perform the same motion despite the fact that the body is reacting differently.”

That might sound an awful lot like apologetics for Walsh, for the Seahawks front office, for a kicker-shopping process that many have criticized on these pages. Please let me beseech you instead to read it as a clarification of how hard it is to kick at temps in these conditions:

Walsh made one relatively easy and two relatively hard field goals earlier that afternoon, then missed the biggest kick of his life. If he were ours, or we were his, or if the same circumstance ended our 2017 hope, it would be exceedingly hard to live with. For either party. But let’s not act like he was terrible on 1/10/15, or the sole reason they lost.

Teddy Bridgewater racked up all of 146 yards passing, taking no chances and making few mistakes. Minnesota’s wideouts accounted for 45 yards receiving. As a group. Adrian Peterson carried 23 times for 45 yards and contributed a costlissimo fumble.

Blair Walsh might’ve lost the game for Minnesota in a sense, but the other Vikings did less than him to win it.

Post-shank Walsh

To my mind, this is where things get interesting. Does Walsh possess the mental fortitude to move past the biggest miss of his life — or, even better, learn from it and emerge better on the other side?

His behavior and words following the game help lay a groundwork that allows one to say “yeah, that could happen” while allowing for “not so fast.”

Because Blair Walsh slipped out of his uniform and stood at his locker a scant few minutes after the miss. He answered questions directly and didn’t deflect blame or equivocate.

“It’s my fault. I don’t care if you give me a watermelon hold, I should be able to put that through,” Walsh said. “Jeff did his job and Kevin did his job. I’m the only one who didn’t do my job. That’s on me.”

Watch him say it.

“It’s my fault.”

That’s what confident, mentally strong men say in such situations.

However — fast-forward to November 2016, after a potential game-winner against the Lions failed to split the uprights. Spoiler: this time, Walsh is visibly annoyed with the postgame line of questioning.

Walsh was released in November. He finished 2016 12-of-16, with four extra point misses for good bad measure.

So while it is true that Walsh handled himself less and less well in 2016 on and off the field, he also receives at this time a fresh start in a new city, with new relationships and a local media herd that isn’t exactly known for its ferocity. Maybe his mind isn’t right. Who am I to know?

What I do feel confident in asserting, though is: If a kicker were to have the mindset enabling him to recover from a heart-shattering playoff shank, he would start that process by

  • acting like Walsh did in the immediate aftermath;
  • then eventually moving on for a welcome change of scenery;
  • and he would have a track record of sustained success on which to build.

On those counts, Walsh is now 3/3. Just like before, you know.

Positives and negatives, relatively organized

1. Experience maybe matters

You have to count Walsh’s unfortunate miss as a negative. But there’s a way to spin it as a positive: the experience of playoff success and failure is something many other journeymen kickers don’t have in their resume. For all the talk about Stephvfen Hauschka bouncing around before he landed in Seattle, the guy never had to make a playoff kick in Baltimore and Denver, because he never attempted one.

So of course with the Hawks, Hau$ch just went and made 19 of 20 playoff field goals, the only miss being a rushed halftime prayerf rom 55 yards awa in Carolina a year ago. Hey, that’s why we put the “maybe” in the headers.

2. Money maybe matters

Advantage Walsh, by far. His cap number is 1.1 million; Hauschka’s is 2.95 over in Buffalo. He’s signed for one year; Hauschka got three.

Maybe saving $2 million annually on a kicker means you shopped for another FA lineman (Aboushi?).; or combined with a core player’s extension, it frees up enough room for another extension beyond that.

Or maybe the money saved ends up being not worth it. Because the misses pile up and another meh 10-6 season ends in the divisional round yet again. Did anyone mention the “maybes” yet?

3. Points left on the board definitely matter

Exhibit A: league history. You need an accurate kicker, or you drop too many close games. It’s tricky, though. If we’re comparing accuracy across careers, advantage Hauschka. If it’s about career trends, again advantage Hauschka — if you believe in such things when it comes to kickers. If it’s about extra points, maybe it’s a wash. THey both missed four last year, albeit in a shorter time for Walsh. If it’s about ceiling, small advantage Walsh.

Career percentages, side by side:

Walsh is 133-158 (84.2) on threes and 48-56 (85.7) on long extra points.

Hauschka is 191-219 (87.2) and 69-79 (87.3) on long extra points.

And touchback numbers too:

Walsh posted 55 percent in ‘15 and 48 percent in ‘16.

Hauschka gave us 47 percent in ‘15, then 61 percent in ‘16.

If you think every kicker is all just about as crapshooty as the next guy and it’s really hard to predict what you’re going to get from year to year (this is Pete’s view, I bet), the I refer you back to 2. and how Walsh makes more sense again.

4. Youth might matter, or not

If it’s about youth, you have to give a slight nod to Walsh, four and a half years Hauschka’s junior. Seems like a bizarre thing to put much stock in, but s.mart people do like to cite youth as a positive, so we’ll allow for the possibility.

5. Something else matters, maybe?

Finally, it’s worth considering that other unknown factors might’ve played a role in the switch. Call this the miscellaneous positives and negatives. Maybe the blocks bothered Pete Carroll and John Schneider enough for them to lose faith in Hau$ch, to the point that he became Hausch. Or it was the low trajectories. Or lousy practice habits. Maybe they saw something in Walsh that can be fixed to return him to 2012 form. And something, anything in the incumbent that invited decreased confidence.

Too often, fans like ourselves at FG get too caught up in assigning simplistic solutions or reasons for roster moves, or seeking explanations that fit our existing biases. I’m so numbers-driven that I hardly ever find myself drawn to the idea that guys are let go based on intangibles. Maybe you’re a big believer that good chemistry leads to winning; maybe you subscribe to the opposite. There’s a giant “who knows?” wastebasket for moments like this. As annoying as it is to crumple up Hauschka’s legacy and toss it in the far corner like a Hersey Hawkins long-range missile, sometimes that’s the reality of outsider fandom. And it sucks.

Of course, maybe the kid John Lunsford wins the kicking job instead and his 52-yarder as time expires in Super Bowl LII gives Paul Allen another Lombardi for the mantle on his yacht’s fireplace. That sucks less.