Rookie records, Minnesota Vikings’ records, NFL records; kicker Blair Walsh’s first season in the NFL was unlike any other.
The sixth-round pick quickly proved the best of a standout rookie crop of kickers last season and set several team and league records on his way to being named to the Pro Bowl. Now, Walsh and the Vikings are working to ensure his second season also avoids other typical circumstances.
In the offseason, Minnesota special teams coordinator Mike Priefer talked to Walsh about avoiding a sophomore slump. Priefer had examples from the past of kickers who had big seasons only to fizzle out often be out of the league. Walsh understood well, because he’d done some studying of his own.
“Blair’s a pretty sharp kid and I think he thinks of these things ahead of time,” Priefer said. “He knew beforehand some of the guys I brought up and said ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about coach. I know where you’re coming from.’… I think he’s put that in strides and says ‘Roger that, Here we go.'”
Walsh rose from training camp question to putting together the best rookie season of any kicker in NFL history. He was drafted to replace steady veteran Ryan Longwell. The Vikings tried to simulate as many pressure-packed situations as they could for Walsh in training camp last season.
In his first regular-season game, he knocked a 55-yard field goal to put the game into overtime where he beat Jacksonville with a 38-yarder. He had a field goal of at least 50 yards in his first three games on his way to setting an NFL single-season record for most field goals of 50 yards or more, going 10 of 10.
Walsh, who was named a first-team All-Pro, tied team records for longest field goal (a 56-yarder) and most field goals made in a single season (35). In one season, his 10 field goals of 50 yards or more is one shy of Longwell’s team record for a career. He also tied an NFL record with three field goals of 50-plus in a game.
Walsh is keeping it all in the past, knowing he can’t dwell on one big season.
“I know there’s a track record of guys who have great seasons, and it’s in any sport, the second year they come back and it’s not as good,” Walsh said. “I just want to sort of dispel that. I don’t actively think about it or try to prove somebody wrong because of it. I’m out there just trying to get better every day and if I take care of that, it will take care of my season.”
The big leg impressed the Vikings in Walsh’s first season, but it was his work and willingness to continually fine-tune his approach that really caught the coach’s eyes. Walsh studied tape diligently and carried a notebook with him to notate little aspects he was working on.
Priefer had another name for Walsh when it came to constantly striving to get better. Jason Hanson, who played under Priefer’s dad, Chuck, in Detroit, played 21 seasons and is third all-time in NFL scoring.
“I think Blair has approached this season with more confidence, with a different focus than he had a year ago, understanding that he had a great year but he still has a lot to prove,” Priefer said. “As everybody in this room knows you are only as good as last kick. So he takes it very, very seriously, with his work ethic, the work he does with (long snapper Cullen Loeffler) and (holder Jeff Locke) are very important to him, and obviously his kickoffs are already season-ready.”
Priefer and Walsh believe he is even stronger this season and he had three touchbacks in last week’s first preseason game. His touchback percentage of 61.6 percent was third in the league last year. Getting stronger is just another way Walsh tried to improve and avoid the sophomore slump. He has his plan for how to avoid any drop off.
“Don’t get complacent,” Walsh said. “Blow up everything you did last year. None of it matters anymore and just do your best.”
Adding concern in Walsh’s second season is breaking in a new holder. When Minnesota cut punter Chris Kluwe, Walsh’s lost the holder that helped him to his record-breaking first season. The Vikings drafted Locke to replace Kluwe as the punter and paid particular attention to his ability to hold.
The offseason and training camp has been used to teach Locke how Walsh likes the ball set up. After opening practices with special teams sessions, Priefer, Walsh, Locke and Loeffler will go to the side and concentrate on the snap and hold. Locke will take repetitions off the Jugs machine, all in an effort to get Loeffler, Locke and Walsh on the same page.
Video cameras capture every small detail and the group will use the video as a teaching tool in film sessions.
“We’re perfectionists and that’s exactly how we want to be,” Walsh said. “We need (Locke) to be perfect and he will.”
Perfection is one way to avoid any sophomore slump.
“His mental toughness; he doesn’t blink, he misses one, and he learns from it and moves on,” Priefer said. “I think that’s what he’s improved on the most is his mental toughness; not that he didn’t have it last year.”