Blair Walsh (Andy King/Getty)
Rookie Blair Walsh proved a lot in his NFL debut, earning the praise of nearly everyone, including Adrian Peterson and owner Zygi Wilf. But Walsh is keeping his head screwed on straight even if his helmet got knocked off kilter.
Legend has it that Minnesota Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh made a 68-yard field goal in practice before the season started.
To hear Adrian Peterson tell the tale now, it was even longer.
“I’ve seen this guy make a 70-yard field goal during training camp,” Peterson said.
After Walsh bailed the Vikings out so dramatically in his NFL debut last weekend against Jacksonville, Peterson can be forgiven for stretching the truth just a little bit. And if the former Georgia Bulldog keeps banging through 55-yarders at the end of regulation to tie games and drilling 38-yarders in overtime to win them, the fable of that big kick will probably only grow over time.
Playing a position that is often regarded with tolerance, if not disdain, by the rest of the team, Walsh has already earned himself a loyal fan in Peterson. The face of the franchise said he has been bragging to friends and family about Walsh’s big leg. When the 55-yarder went through at the end of regulation on Sunday, Peterson immediately looked for an uncle sitting in the stands at the Metrodome.
“I’ll find him when I get downstairs and say, ‘I told you about that guy,’” Peterson said after the game. “He’s good; he has a good leg.”
Walsh is the only player to win his NFL debut by sending the game into overtime at the end of regulation and kicking a field goal in overtime, and is one of just three — along with Matt Bahr in 1979 and Todd Peterson in 1994 — to win his first NFL game with an overtime field goal.
So in his first professional week of work, Walsh has hit kicks that tied and won a game, been named NFC special teams player of the week, had Peterson brag about him and even had Vikings owner Zygi Wilf give him the tie off his neck.
“Like literally off his neck and threw it at me,” Walsh said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was like, ‘Alright.’”
Wilf has on occasion given his tie on game day to a player he felt contributed largely to the victory. But to give it to a rookie, and a kicker to boot, was no small feat.
“It’s a nice thing to have, and it is a nice one,” Walsh said. “I couldn’t even read whatever the brand was. That’s usually a good sign.”
The designer neckwear, and the kicks of course, went a long way toward validating the Vikings’ risky decision to cut rock-steady veteran Ryan Longwell in the offseason and go with Walsh, a sixth-round draft choice who struggled with accuracy in his senior season at Georgia. He missed 14 of his 35 attempts last season. But the Vikings loved his leg strength and felt that with a few mechanical adjustments, he could get back on track.
From the moment he arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings have worked on his timing, approach and follow-through. The results are hard to argue with, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“He’s still not polished enough for me,” Priefer said. “He’s still not consistent enough for me on kickoffs or field goals.
“We’re going to continue to work just like we’ve been working. For a young guy with his youth, because of his youth, he’ll be able to work extremely hard to get to where we need him to get to and to be the total, consummate kicker that the NFL needs, to win at the NFL level going forward.”
Peterson may also want to work on his technique for encouraging Walsh before he attempts a big kick going forward. As the 5-foot-10 kicker trotted out for the critical 55-yarder, Peterson slapped him on the head with his powerful paw. Perhaps a little too amped up, Peterson actually knocked Walsh’s helmet off kilter, just a few seconds before the kick.
“I was laughing when I was running onto the field because I couldn’t believe he just did that,” Walsh said. “Most people don’t even want to touch the kicker or talk to him or anything. Christian (Ponder) just gave me a little low high-five as I walking by, and he went and slapped my helmet. I don’t think he knows how strong he is.”
Maybe Peterson knocked some sense into the kid.
“I didn’t know I hit him that hard,” he said. “But I said to him, ‘I know you’re going to make this kick. You’re going to make this kick.’”
For all the celebration, gifts and pats on the helmet Walsh is receiving this week, he knows that kicking for a living can be a fickle trade. A few shanks on Sunday at Indianapolis and all of his first-week achievements will be forgotten.
That was one of Longwell’s biggest attributes. What he lacked in leg strength he made up for in steely reserve and dependability in the clutch. And he did it for 15 years.
“It’s nice to get those opportunities, though, and nice to try and prove your worth to this team and you can be dependable,” Walsh said. “There’s 15 more games to go and I’ve got to show that for 15 more games and beyond.”