It’s January 10th, 2016 at a frigid TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Seattle Seahawks, one of the hottest teams in the NFL, are on the verge of a disappointing playoff loss against the Minnesota Vikings, whom through two games were unable to score a single offensive touchdown against Seattle’s defense.
Coming onto the field is Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, 3-for-3 in field goal attempts on the afternoon, including two from 45+ on a day when the football might as well be an actual giant rock. This is just a 27-yard field goal attempt, and barring a miracle score in about 22 seconds, the Vikings were going to advance.
“[Kevin McDermott] is the snapper… and the kick is no good!” - NBC announcer Al Michaels
“Blair Walsh from 27 yards, left hash. Snap good, spot down, Walsh’s kicks is up… and it is, no good he missed it! Are you kidding me?! The season can’t end like that! He missed it left! And the Seattle Seahawks are off to Charlotte. Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal, and the Minnesota Vikings are going to lose 10-9.” - Vikings radio announcer Paul Allen
“This is a 27-yard field goal from the left hashmark for Blair Walsh, to try to give the Vikings the lead. The snap, the kick is up… it’s no good! Are you kidding me?! It’s no good! Oh baby it’s Christmas in Minnesota, and the Seahawks have dodged a bullet.” - Seahawks radio announcer Steve Raible
The Seahawks would fall behind 31-0 to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers the following Sunday, but Russell Wilson’s second-half heroics made the final scoreline 31-24.
As part of SB Nation’s “What-if?” week to look at alternate history throughout the NFL world, we’re going to discuss the “what-ifs?” and ramifications of Walsh making that kick, and how differently things would’ve/could’ve gone for the Seahawks and Walsh moving forward.
Knowing how much Pete Carroll values special teams and how proactive he is about addressing roster weaknesses (acquisitions of Percy Harvin, Jimmy Graham, more running backs than one can count in 2016-2017), the biggest what-if scenario I see revolves around his personnel decisions in the wake of a brutal playoff loss.
Remember that the 2015 Seattle Seahawks, whose offense looked absolutely unstoppable for the second half of the season (32.1 ppg), managed all of 43 yards rushing and 39 yards passing, total, in the first half in Minneapolis on that cold, cold, cooooold day. And no points. No points even through three quarters.
Remember that this is a playoff game. Carroll knows that elements in January won’t be ideal unless the Seahawks are on the road in a dome. And then you’re on the road, which isn’t ideal either. The special teams must be... special. So, he internally pledges to use the offseason to beef up the kicking game. A kicker is drafted. Objection: The PCJS Seahawks had never used a draft selection on a kicker! Well. They hadn’t used one on a punter, either, until they suddenly did a few weeks ago.
No money is saved on specialists. Clint Gresham is not let go for the unsuccessful Nolan Frese experiment of 2016, nor for the dubious sake of saving a couple hundred thousand dollars. Instead, Steven Hauschka wins a spirited competition in camp, then develops additional chemistry with Gresham. Hausch still misses the game-winner in Arizona, because the Blood Draw is a fixed moment in time and no butterfly effect can touch it. But armed with the extension he’d signed just days before his untimely miss, Hauschka gears up for a monster 2017: 29-of-33 overall and 7-of-9 from beyond 50 yards. Unrealistic? Hardly. Those are his actual kicking number for his actual 2017 with the Buffalo actual Bills.
The 2017 Seahawks don’t drop the home games to Atlanta or Washington; they win their division despite a concerning stumble against the Rams at the Clink. Seattle’s the 2 seed, and after dispatching New Orleans at home in the divisional round, again, it’s off to meet the Eagles with the George Halas trophy on the line. Philadelphia prevails in overtime, but the Seahawks are on everyone’s short list to return to the Super Bowl as we ramp up for the 2018 season. Especially after drafting San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny 30th overall. I hear the Patriots wanted him at 31.
(P.S.: the playoffs play out nicely for the 2015 Vikings, who first ride their fearsome defensive line and Walsh’s leg to a blowout divisional win over the Cardinals. Minnesota then takes out an overrated Panthers squad in the NFCCG. Walsh is 13/13 on FG on the way to the Super Bowl, which the Vikings lose to the Broncos, because that’s what they do. Great year regardless.)
Some kickers seem to get psychologically broken when they miss critical “gimme” field goals to win games (see: Mike Vanderjagt), so it’s possible Walsh doesn’t melt the ensuing season and end up with his walking papers from Minnesota, leading to his disastrous one year with the Seahawks.
Perception of the 2015 Seahawks would be a whole lot different. Russell Wilson’s MVP run in the second-half of the season occurred almost entirely on regionally televised games, and for him to have his first post-XLIX playoff game end in a loss in which he goes just 13/26 for 142, 1 TD, and 1 INT would’ve been a bad look. We don’t get the near heroics of the Panthers game that, even in defeat, seemed to be a bigger statement about Wilson’s improvement as a passer than many of Seattle’s wins even within that season.
No Panthers game also means we don’t see Marshawn Lynch’s final playoff appearance in a Seahawks jersey (however ugly it looked), the career-best games of Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse, or that neat fake punt rushing play by DeShawn Shead.
As far as the coaching staff is concerned, I don’t think we would’ve seen any firings, although I believe we would’ve seen even more pressure on Kris Richard given Seattle’s defense took an absolute battering all year for being poor at finishing games off and preventing game-tying and game-winning drives in the closing minutes. They were unable to seal the deal four times in the regular season, and the Vikings game was just about ready to be the fifth. In some ways, that would’ve been the more fitting way for Seattle’s season to end, as opposed to what transpired in Charlotte.
I’m not sure a Walsh make bolster’s Hauschka’s position in Seattle as much as the others; it only makes the Walsh option less palatable in replacement of the former Seahawks’ veteran. Remember, Hauschka misses at the end of both Arizona games in 2016 cost the team a win and a half—when even the half win by itself would have been enough to gain Seattle a first round bye and a home date against the Atlanta Falcons that year. Missed field goals and extra points also jeopardized close wins against the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, the Falcons in the regular season and even the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers. Pete Carroll was not pleased about those, and Hauschka wouldn’t have gotten any cheaper.
Nevertheless, any other kicker than Walsh might have shifted 2017 into a bounce back year, yet I still prefer to blame the offensive challenges and defensive attrition for making those games so close in the first place.
But back to the Vikings win-turned-loss. An alternate ending definitely robs us of several key instances of Seahawks Magic, that potentially make 2016 even more of downer for fans as we withdraw into a belief that the run of charmed outcomes might be over even sooner than in reality.
(As my friend Stephen likes to say.) (Not Hauschka.)
—one upside to not traveling to that divisional game in Carolina is that you preserve the health of one Russell Okung, former left tackle of your Seattle Seahawks who exited that loss with a separated shoulder. Most likely Seattle still remains hesitant to sign John Schneider’s first ever draft pick to a second contract based on the gulf between the market value of left tackles and Okung’s overall performance. But maybe without the injury uncertainty they’re a little less wary, Okung still heads into free agency representing himself, and after his first round of disappointments seeking a long guaranteed deal he relents and comes back to the Seahawks at a low enough price to continue being the anchor on that once-championship offensive front.
In this scenario, without so much pressure to switch to the left side you skip the interpersonal conflicts that ruined Garry Gilliam’s relationship with Tom Cable, you avoid the whole Bradley Sowell experiment, George Fant and Rees Odhiambo get to develop more naturally in practice instead of thrust into the fray too soon, and Seattle’s architects get to narrow their emphasis on the line to shoring up the guard slots.
As a result, Thomas Rawls doesn’t face a light brigade of rushers in his face in the backfield every carry of the past two seasons (setting back his return from ankle surgery with a new injury in his first L.A. Rams encounter, ruining his confidence in finding the holes and eventually his relationship with Cable), instead successfully reproducing his results from 2015 over a 16-game sample, and goes on to win NFL MVP in 2017 as the Seahawks dominate the league with a more complete offense.
All thanks to Blair Walsh, secret savior of Seattle’s fortunes.
I guess the first consideration is, “What happens to the Minnesota Vikings?” Obviously if Walsh makes the kick, they win. Don’t think there are any miracles for the Seahawks if Walsh makes the kick. In that case, the Vikings go on to play the Cardinals in the divisional round. The Cards beat the Packers in OT in the divisional round and I think they’d manage to take care of Minnesota too. They beat the Vikings in the regular season (23-20) and maybe they would lose, but in general, I don’t think Walsh kept his team from winning the Super Bowl that year. Just one game.
“What happens to the Seahawks?” - Well, they’d obviously lose and avoid a loss the following week. I think that first half against the Panthers really shook something loose. It was so ugly from the beginning. Marshawn Lynch’s career was deemed over. He never played in Seattle again. Would an offseason without that loss to Carolina be any different? I don’t think so. It also ended up being a really amazing second half for Russell Wilson, Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin, and Tyler Lockett. So there’s that. Maybe that helped “boost” the offense into the offseason as opposed to what a loss in Minnesota would’ve felt like but I don’t think it really matters that much season to season. I don’t know that the 2016 Seahawks change much, but the 2017 Seattle team ….?
Obviously there’s a chance that Walsh doesn’t get cut by the Vikings the following year if he makes the kick. It’s a crazy psychological position. But he was also just generally terrible in 2016 and was trending in the wrong direction prior to the wild card loss. If he stays in Minnesota and doesn’t come to the Seahawks, maybe they make an effort for Steve Hauschka to stay, but my overall feeling: not much changes for anyone if Walsh makes the infamous kick. On another completely different note: Packers vs Panthers could’ve been an interesting matchup and maybe Green Bay makes the NFC Championship game for a different shot at upending Arizona.
We hope you enjoyed this Field Gulls roundtable (unless you’re a Vikings fan, then we apologize). This is a “What-if” week on SB Nation so if you have any topic suggestions — all preferably within the 21st century — let us know in the comments section, on Twitter (@FieldGulls), or on the official Field Gulls Facebook page.