Chris Kluwe (Kevin Brown/Viking Update)
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe defended his outside interests and said they don’t get in the way of his punting. He is one of the most outspoken athletes on Minnesota’ s gay marriage amendment issue, but he said his time spent promoting that and working other interests doesn’t interfere with his ability to punt in a “children’s game.”
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has a habit of nervous laughter when he’s answering questions. Whether the questions are positive or pointed – as they were Wednesday in the Vikings locker room – Kluwe often ends a sentence with a laugh.
He had more than a dozen of those types of moments Wednesday as he was surrounded by reporters and besieged with questions about his lack of consistency with punting, highlighted by a 20-yard shank early in last Thursday’s game that allowed Tampa Bay to start a drive at midfield that led to the game’s first points.
As a result, the Vikings brought in Brian Stahovich, a former San Diego State punter who was released by the Indianapolis Colts in late August, for a tryout. It seemed clear the team was sending a message to Kluwe, who has struggled with short kicks this season while drawing attention to himself with his very public support of the gay marriage amendment coming up for a vote in Minnesota. Kluwe said that he understands the rationale behind the Stahovich tryout and added that he wouldn’t expect anything less.
“It’s part of the job,” Kluwe said. “If the team doesn’t think you’re performing up to standard, they’ll bring someone else in and do what they need to do. I’m going to approach it the same way – go out and have the best game I can and hopefully I do.”
Kluwe was informed of the decision to bring in a punter for a workout and head coach Leslie Frazier said the team might do the same next week. Kluwe has been part of the process and said he realizes that his job isn’t guaranteed and that he has to keep working to keep it.
In days since Thursday’s loss, Kluwe has come under scrutiny for his non-football activities. He is the member of a band called Tripping Icarus and has famously taken up the cause of the Minnesota gay marriage constitutional amendment. He has written open letters criticizing politicians, appeared on national television and posed for "Out" magazine to promote the issue of gay marriage. He and his wife have also done radio spots in support of gay marriage. Asked if he felt he hasn’t focused enough on football, Kluwe said that, like anyone else, when he’s at work, he’s all business. But, when he’s on his own time, he has other interests.
“I’d be more worried about someone who spent 24 hours a day thinking about solely one subject,” Kluwe said. “It’s not a sign of great mental health. When I’m here at the facility, football is the only thing I’m focusing on. That’s what I’m here for. When I’m away from the football facility, I have a life. I do other things. I don’t think there’s anything about not focusing or not being prepared. I approach each week as though I’m going to get cut if I don’t perform well. That’s the way I’ve always played the game.”
Kluwe, who has been outspoken on several social issues and has become a Twitter favorite – he has more than 129,000 followers – has been the subject of some hostile tweets about his lack of performance and suggestions that he should just shut up and kick. He is definitely aware of what is being said about him, but added that he doesn’t put much stock in the argument many of the Twitter universe is making.
“Generally, I just ignore them,” Kluwe said. “I read all of them, but I don’t really think about them. The funny thing is if you look at that argument, the basic foundation of that argument is, ‘Why don’t you worry more about a children’s game that basic human rights.’ I’m generally going to go with basic human rights on that issue.”
Back in 2008, Kluwe was similarly surrounded by reporters after the Vikings brought in a cavalcade of potential replacements following a punt that New Orleans' Reggie Bush returned for a touchdown in which Kluwe was instructed to kick the ball out of bounds. At that time, veteran kicker Ryan Longwell admitted that Kluwe was nervous about potentially losing his job. He was in his fourth season and didn’t have enough of a track record to assure he would keep his job. This time around, Kluwe sees it as a wakeup call. But does it serve as motivation?
“Not really,” Kluwe said. “I’m going to prepare the same way every week – the same I’ve always prepared. My goal is not to have a bad game. My goal is to do the best I possibly can. Sometimes you just don’t succeed.”
Kluwe’s public mea culpa came because nobody felt worse about his off kicking night than he did. While most fans focus on offense and defense, games are often won and lost by the play of special teams (look back at the Detroit game to reinforce that notion). Kluwe said by not doing his job correctly, he put the defense in a bind that led to points that got Tampa Bay off and running.
“It’s a momentum thing,” Kluwe said. “You have a 20-yard punt in the first quarter and it kills the defense. I can’t have something like that happen.”
Kluwe admitted he’s had some mechanical issues that were brought into focus Thursday. He said that is what he intends to spend this week working on most – making sure he gets his kicking rhythm back where it should be.
“I’m rushing myself a little bit, trying to go a little bit too fast,” Kluwe said. “My drop hasn’t been super-consistent. It’s something that, hopefully, I can focus in on and try and get that corrected.”
Consistency is critical for specialists. If a long snapper one-hops a couple of snaps, he’s looking for work. If a kicker misses too many clutch field goals, he’s shown the door. The same is true with a punter. In an age of specialization in the NFL, the difference between a booming punt and a shank can be minimal. How minimal?
“About an inch,” Kluwe said. “The drop is maybe an inch inside or an inch outside or the ball is tilted three or four degrees forward or three or four degrees back, that can change the entire outcome of the kick. It’s a very small window you have to hit in order to hit the ball well. Unfortunately on Thursday, I missed the window a couple of times.”
Kluwe isn’t going to make any drastic changes in his kicking motion. Instead, he plans to make minor tweaks that he hopes will get him back to where he has been for most of his career and, in the process, not have the media horde at his locker peppering him with questions.
“I’ll approach it the same way I have the last 7½ years,” Kluwe said. “I’ve played in the league for a while now and you’ve just got to try to stay consistent.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.