A series of tweets by Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News Tribune Wednesday and Thursday help put into perspective the Seattle Seahawks’ move to sign former Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh last month, as incumbent Stephen Hauschka faces free agency beginning March 9. Bell was at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, reporting from press conferences by Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
Asked Pete Carroll what Blair Walsh signing means for K Steven Hauschka "Steven's a free agent. He can go anywhere he wants to go" #Seahawks— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) March 2, 2017
Pete Carroll calls new #Seahawks K Blair Walsh "a tremendous talent," a prime example of improving team. Sure sounds like Hauschka's gone— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) March 2, 2017
In case you think Bell’s speculation is a little rampant, the most determining factor between Walsh at this point and Hauschka, after down years by both kickers, is money. Bob Condotta calculated last month that the difference between what Walsh signed for and what Hauschka earned in 2016 is about $2.4 million, which by itself could give the Seahawks an opportunity to sign a veteran free agency at another more impactful position.
Hauschka might not be able to haul quite the contract he was paid on his extension after the 2013 season, but as an unrestricted free agent he will likely try to find a longer term deal and more guaranteed money than Walsh got from Seattle off the street.
But the surprising thing about Carroll’s comments is what he said without Hauschka’s name directly in his mouth:
Pete Carroll still talkin abt "a kick away here & there" from hosting 2nd-rd playoff. THAT'S why Walsh in, Hauschka out as #Seahawks' kicker— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) March 2, 2017
That’s something of a departure from the unwavering support we saw from the head coach when Hauschka struggled at times during the season. Famously, after both teams’ kickers missed kicks that would have won Seattle’s October 23 game in overtime against the Arizona Cardinals, Carroll’s remarks stood in contrast to Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. “He’s a professional. This ain’t high school, baby. You get paid to make it,” Arians said. And also: “The kicker needs to kick it through the two poles.” After the same game, when Hauschka’s potentially-winning miss came in the closing seconds, Carroll said, “He made his kicks to give us a chance, and unfortunately he didn't make the last one. ... I love him and he's our guy."
Of course that was before Hauschka missed a field goal and extra point in the rematch with Arizona that might have altered the result of that later game and possibly shifted the Seahawks’ postseason story as the coach alludes, but it’s still unusual for Carroll to undermine his player like that even after the fact. And it’s a little head-scratching to hear about Carroll dwelling on a few kicks “here & there” when so much else in 2016, from injuries to blocking ineptitude to inopportune turnovers, spelled the difference in seeding.
In spite of all that, I don’t really have a problem with Carroll being more candid about a player that the team no longer holds under contract, compared to one they’re counting on in the midst of the season. The reason why Bell interprets these comments as finalizing Hauschka’s free agency exit is because Carroll probably would take a more gracious tack if he envisioned the kicker back for a seventh season in Seattle.
(Counterpoint: it’s a negotiation strategy to lower Hauschka’s eventual cost; you could lump the Walsh signing as an additional chip for this kind of leverage, if you wanted to contort yourself into believing Hauschka will be a Seahawk for life—but the fact remains Hauschka will be available to negotiate with all 32 teams. As the coach says, “He can go anywhere he wants.”)
Beside affection for Hauschka, Seattle fans feel a revulsion toward Walsh because they remember him missing badly his own game-winning try against the Seahawks in the playoffs two years ago. That miss reputedly sent Walsh into a psychological spiral that saw him cut from the Vikings after just nine games the following season. But a sober look at the numbers shows that Walsh wasn’t as terrible in 2016 as the narrative suggests: Of his four missed field goals, three were from beyond 40 yards, two were in the first game of the year and only one could have swayed an outcome but it came in the third quarter, so who knows? Walsh’s final straw were a couple missed extra points in November, but he also only missed four on the year. Hauschka missed six.
As Chase Stuart reminds us, “field goal kickers are notoriously inconsistent from year to year” and Walsh is five years younger than Hauschka making his drop in performance more likely to be variance than absolute decline. It’s only been a few years since Walsh was a perfect 10/10 on kicks longer than 50 yards, so it’s not like he’s a bum. Anyway, as Bell also relayed after Schneider’s press conference Walsh (with no money guaranteed) is hardly a lock for the Seattle job just yet: “We’ll be looking for someone else to come in and compete, as well,” Schneider said—perhaps one or more (undrafted) rookies.
Overall, tough week for Middlebury College, where Hauschka initially played soccer. Bell didn’t even bother to spell Hauschka’s name correctly.