Concern at Kicker?
Add in his 100% PAT rate (36-for-36) and Rick Spielman was starting to look like a genius after replacing veteran kicker Ryan Longwell with the big-legged rookie.
After an impressive rookie campaign, Walsh experienced a bit of a sophomore slump a year ago. 2013 saw a leg injury plague Blair and in-turn, his field goal percentage dropped down to 86.7% (26-for-30) including three misses from 50+ yards. Then there was a missed extra point as well.
Fast forward to 2014 and we've already seen Blair Walsh miss two field goals from beyond 50 yards in the preseason and an extra point from the tested 35 yard mark. So at what point should we start to be bothered by Walsh's apparent struggles?
Because of his outstanding rookie season, we seem to have forgotten that Walsh has a history of struggles on the field. He was highly touted coming out of the University of Georgia because of his big kicking leg and with the league putting more of an emphasis on the short kickoffs and touchbacks, it seemed like a perfect fit for the Vikings and Rick Spielman. With the powerful leg stealing the headlines, Blair's senior season was far from accurate. In fact, it was flat out bad. Walsh finished the 2011 season 21-for-35 (60%) kicking field goals with a handful of those misses coming from distance.
Following his disappointing senior season, Walsh was drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Vikings. A few days later, veteran kicker Ryan Longwell was released and Walsh was handed the starting gig.
With visible improvements on the kickoff front, Walsh's career got off to a big start in the very first game. On the day that Adrian Peterson returned to the field for the first time after reconstructive knee surgery, Walsh went 4-for-4 kicking including a 55 yard game tying field goal at the end of regulation and then the game winner from 38 yards in overtime. The early confidence boost was huge for Walsh and carried him through the rest of his rookie season and into the NFL record books.
So what's changed in the span of a year that took a rookie kicker who was darn near perfect into a veteran who is struggling into the season?
Is it kicking outdoors?
Blair Walsh, Jeff Locke and Cullen Loeffler visited TCF Bank stadium three times during the offseason in an attempt to learn the wind patterns of their new outdoor home. Through two preseason games, the work does not appear to be paying off as both Locke and Walsh are struggling a bit.
For his part, Walsh insists that despite the move to the outdoors, he's not over thinking things. He does see some minor technical details that need to be ironed out, but the surrounding environment has been calm and peaceful through the first few games.
Is it some sort of lingering injury?
Walsh's troubles in 2013 can be attributed in part to a hamstring injury that lingered throughout the second part of the year. The injury was not bad enough to sideline the kicker but it did effect his range. Walsh finished last year with a kicking percentage of only 63.6% from 40 yards and beyond.
During the offseason, Walsh worked on his cardio in an attempt to prevent lingering injuries from effecting his on the field performance. Blair said that he lost 8-10 pounds but was able to gain leg strength at the same time, as evident through his missed 51 yarder last week that hit the upright two-thirds of the way up or the 70-yard field goal that he nailed during warmups on Saturday night.
"I just wanted to get more explosive and I think I've done that evidenced by my kickoff and range right now," Walsh said of his new health. "I've seen my range expand and I've seen my ability to bounce back from sessions to session, recovery time, has increased by being in better shape."
Is it the holder, punter Jeff Locke?
One of the popular theories to explain Walsh's recent struggles has been 2013's implementation of new punter and Walsh's new holder Jeff Locke. During the 2012 season, former punter Chris Kluwe served as the team's holder and Walsh kicked at a 92.1% field goal rate. The next season, the team replaced Kluwe with Locke and the struggles became evident.
Admittedly, Locke had some growing pains as the team's holder. The technical aspects were getting the better of him so Locke switched to wearing gloves while he holds to aid in catching the snap. This allowed him to focus more on placing the ball than catching the snap.
However, Blair wasn't buying it saying, "We've got one of the best snappers in the league and now one of the best holders in the league. When I'm put in positions to make kicks I know that they're going to be on it every time."
If you ask Walsh himself, he's not worried.
"Preseason is sort of like an extended audition of what you're doing in practice," Walsh explained earlier this week. "As long as I go out there and kick how I did in Training Camp, then I'll be fine. I think that's what is frustrating for me is that those two long misses, I've been making them all throughout Training Camp. I want to translate to the field but I feel confident that by the time the regular season rolls around we'll be ready to go."
The coaching staff doesn't seem to be worried either.
"He's been great in practice and he has been great previously," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "I expect him to make those kicks and I'm sure he will."
As for the fan base, it appears as if the jury is still out. The regular season is a different but if history has taught us anything, it might be very important for Walsh to get off to a good start early and roll with the momentum through the rest of the year.
What do you think? Are you worried that Blair Walsh's preseason struggles will carry over into the regular season?