POLL OF THE WEEK: Blair Walsh is “Hooked” on a Feeling

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Kicking in the NFL is a lot like putting in golf. The slightest hitch, increase in speed, or head movement can throw off a kick or putt. Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting inside your own head. For golfers, the “yips” can devastate what was once a solid short game. And for Blair Walsh, the “yips” are playing a nasty game on the Vikings’ star kicker, who is struggling mightily through three preseason games.

When the Vikings extended Walsh’s contract in July —  a four-year deal worth up to $14 million, with $5.25 million in guarantees — it appeared to be a vote of confidence from Rick Spielman and the front office. Walsh had, in only his rookie season, earned a trip to the 2012 Pro Bowl after connecting on 92.1 percent of his field goals. More impressive was the fact that Walsh attempted 10 field goals of 50 or more yards, and connected on all of them that year.

He showed off the impressive leg that had made him a sixth-round pick out of Georgia, and converted more field goals than any other kicker in 2012. “After I saw the combine workout and then I went down to Georgia (where Walsh went to college) to work him out, I knew he had the leg strength to do that kind of damage as a field-goal kicker,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said before the 2012 NFL Draft, per the Pioneer Press.

Walsh’s leg strength was never in doubt, but his accuracy waned in 2013 and 2014. Though he missed just four field goals in 2013, three of those came on kicks of 50 or more yards. In 2014, the story continued, with Walsh missing 4 more attempts from that distance. As Michael Rand wrote on Monday, switching holders may have affected Walsh’s performance. “After Kluwe was replaced as punter and holder by Jeff Locke in 2013, Walsh still had a respectable season: 26 for 30 on field goals,” he wrote. “Locke, though, has been the holder in times of struggle (2014 and this preseason) as well.”

Take last week’s performance against the Raiders as an example — Walsh missed three field goals and even pushed one of the league’s new 33-yard extra point attempts. Through three preseason games, Walsh is 2-for-6 with his latest misses coming from 35, 38 and 49 yards. As the league’s least accurate kicker in 2014 (74.3 percent), a slump like this is disheartening. Just look at Mike Zimmer’s reaction on Saturday night:

Following the game, Walsh spoke with reporters and avoided making excuses for his poor play. Instead, he spoke to the discouraging nature of his kicks on a howling, windy night in Minnesota. “Yeah, I mean it’s discouraging in the moment, but I think when you look back on what you’ve done so far and what I’ve been doing in camp and that’s the most frustrating part about it,” he said. “You want to take your results and how you do pregame and in camp and what you’ve done in your career and do that right now. I’m not doing it right now and I’m not translating it over, and I need to fix it.”

Before taking the field in the Hall of Fame Game, Walsh looked like his old self in training camp, per the Star Tribune’s Matt Vensel. According to Vensel, Walsh had made 20 of his 23 field-goal attempts through August 5th and seemed poised for a return to form in 2015. However, the Vikings’ biggest concern has to be Walsh’s ability to kick outdoors.

This year, the Vikings will play 13 of their 16 games outdoors, and Walsh has been an 80.4 percent kicker outdoors for his career. Last season, four of his misses came at TCF Bank Stadium, though his struggles outdoors may be more mental than physical, per Michael Rand:

[quote_center]Kicking outside, particularly in a stadium noted for tricky winds like TCF Bank, has impacted some of Walsh’s kicks directly (by pushing them around) and indirectly (by playing with his head).[/quote_center]

Whether it’s a physical, mental, or emotional problem for Walsh, he’ll need to figure it out in a hurry. How worried are you, and what needs to change for Walsh to start making his field goals?