2012 Vikings Review: Blair Walsh's leg drove NFL's best special teams
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The turnaround on special teams can be traced to January, when special teams coordinator Mike Priefer recommended to general manager Rick Spielman the Vikings dump Ryan Longwell.
The veteran place-kicker had struggled after signing a three-year, $9 million contract in July 2011, making only 78.6% of his field goals and registering 19 touchbacks (24.7%) despite the NFL's altered kickoff rule.
Not only did the Vikings lead the NFL in field goals in 2012 behind record-setting rookie Blair Walsh, they nearly tripled their touchbacks as part of a widespread renaissance for Priefer's unit.
They rose from No. 29 to No. 1 in The Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings, which ranks teams in 22 categories. That was the largest leap since the News began compiling the rankings in 1980.
The following are individual grades for the three specialists who finished the season on the Vikings' 53-man roster as well as grades for the coaching staff and personnel department. Grades are based on observations of games and practice, weekly tape studies and interviews with NFL coaches and scouts. The scale designates "A" for elite performance, "B" for above-average performance, "C" for average performance, "D" for below-average performance and "F" for failure to perform at an NFL level.
• Blair Walsh (A): A sixth-round draft pick (175th overall) who struggled as a senior at Georgia, Walsh left no doubt in camp he was the man for the job and ended up turning in one of the great seasons for a place-kicker in NFL history. Made 36 of 39 field-goal attempts (92.3%). Set an NFL record with 10 field goals in as many attempts from 50 yards and beyond. Tied another record with three field goals from 50-plus at St. Louis. Broke numerous single-season team records, including touchbacks (54 in 89 kickoffs, 60.7%). Had enough hang time (up to 4.7 seconds) some teams opted not to return the ball from even a yard or two deep in the end zone. Hit a 55-yard field goal to force overtime in the opener and a 38-yarder to win it. Hit a 29-yard field goal as time expired in the regular-season finale to send the Vikings into the playoffs. Missed wide left from 46 yards at Detroit and wide right from 42 at Green Bay. Had a low 30-yarder blocked by Julius Peppers at Chicago. Made all 36 extra-point attempts. Has the leg and even demeanor for the position. Selected to the NFC roster for the Pro Bowl and named a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press. If he keeps performing like this, Walsh figures to appear on both teams for years to come.
• Chris Kluwe (B-): Better known at this point for his endeavors off the field than punting on it, Kluwe turned in perhaps the best season of his eight-year NFL career despite playing much of the season with a torn meniscus in his left (non-kicking) knee. Saw a slight dip in his gross average (45.3, from 45.7 in 2011) but posted a career-high net average of 40.1 yards on 77 punts, up from 38.0 last season. Pinned 19 punts inside the 20, including a moonshot that hung 5.1 seconds and left Detroit with 98 yards to go late. Had only two touchbacks. Went through a rough patch at midseason, with shanks of 20 yards against Tampa Bay and 23 yards at Chicago. Rebounded at home against the Bears, pinning two punts inside the 5. Was fined $5,250 for wearing a homemade "Vote Ray Guy" patch over the Pro Football Hall of Fame patch on his jersey during that game. Subsequently was told publicly to focus on punting by Priefer. Also was outspoken and visible in his opposition of an amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. Worked at his duties as a holder for place-kicks and was excellent in that aspect. Had one tackle. Was scheduled to have the knee surgically repaired on Thursday. Is 31 and due $1.45 million on the last year of his contract in 2013. The Vikings signed former Jets punter T.J. Conley off the street this month to compete, but Kluwe remains the favorite.
• Cullen Loeffler (C): Returning from back surgery, Loeffler had no egregious errors in his ninth NFL season but was less consistent than usual. Played in all 17 games for the eighth time. At least 13 of his 152 long snaps (8.6%) could be considered errant, though Kluwe rescued them all. Mostly had trouble outdoors. Delivered an ankle-high snap on a punt at Washington, a wide snap that contributed to a shank at Chicago and five wayward snaps in two games at Lambeau Field. Had five tackles (four solo), none more important than a sprawling takedown of Green Bay's Jeremy Ross on a 32-yard punt return in the regular-season finale. Turned 32 on Sunday. Is scheduled to make $925,000 in 2013 and figures to return, though he could face competition.
The most important number for Leslie Frazier is 10 -- the Vikings' victory total after winning only nine games over the previous two seasons combined. The staff did some of its best work down the stretch after a 4-1 start had faded to 5-4 and later 6-6. They closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Players have roundly praised Frazier's consistent approach for keeping the season on track. Game management issues mostly subsided, the offensive approach late in the first half of several games notwithstanding. Frazier was 2-for-3 on replay challenges, losing only on a Ponder fumble at St. Louis. New defensive coordinator Alan Williams improved as the season went along. He continued to run the Vikings' Tampa-2 derivative scheme but showed a willingness to adapt to the opponent and situation, whether that meant not sending a single blitz against Arizona or ramping up pressure in late-season upsets at St. Louis and Houston. The Vikings were ill-prepared for zone-read attacks at Washington and Seattle. They had no answer for Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who in three games completed 78 of 108 passes (72.2%) for 925 yards, six touchdowns and one interception on an unneeded flea-flicker. Williams' predecessor, Fred Pagac, accepted a demotion and remains one of the NFL's better linebackers coaches. They're still riding the likes of Jared Allen (93.4% of the snaps) and Brian Robison (74%) too hard. In his second season, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave drew up some of his best plans after top WR Percy Harvin was lost to a season-ending ankle injury at Seattle, spreading the ball around and helping to pull QB Christian Ponder out of a deep funk. Though players are supposed to be interchangeable, Musgrave's decision remains puzzling to run the Vikings' regular offense with backup quarterback Joe Webb in the playoff game despite some early success with the read-option. Respected line coach Jeff Davidson, who installs the run game, hasn't gotten enough credit for his contributions to HB Adrian Peterson's 2,000-yard rushing season. Moving quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson to the sideline at midseason seemed to have a positive impact on Ponder. Also in his second season, Priefer signed off on cutting Longwell and drafting Walsh. No special teams unit kicked more field goals (35), committed fewer turnovers (none) or allowed fewer points (none) in the regular season than the Vikings, who ranked in the top five in seven other special-teams categories and in the top 10 in four more. They did get burned by two fakes -- a punt against Tennessee and a two-point conversion at Chicago. The only member of Frazier's staff known to be departing is his assistant, Cameron Turner, who joined his father's staff at Florida International. The Vikings still got outscored in the third quarter (77-74) during the regular season, but not by nearly the same margin (132-61) that raised red flags about their ability to counteradjust in 2011. They reduced their turnovers (23). Only three teams committed fewer penalties (90). Frazier preaches endlessly about playing smart, tough, disciplined football and the results in Year 2 suggests players are buying in. A contract extension should only be a matter of agreeing on the price.
Promoted to GM last January, Spielman stabilized the football operation and continued the process of cleaning out the roster that should have been done a year ago. He released LG Steve Hutchinson, RG Anthony Herrera, CB Cedric Griffin and NT Remi Ayodele. He opted against re-signing MLB E.J. Henderson and TE Visanthe Shiancoe, among others. He followed his philosophy by re-signing five of the Vikings' own unrestricted free agents (NTs Letroy Guion and Fred Evans, WLB Erin Henderson, WR Devin Aromashodu, QB Sage Rosenfels) and making a multiyear commitment to one outside UFA, TE John Carlson. Rosenfels was cut in favor of McLeod Bethel-Thompson, leaving the Vikings on the hook for a $500,000 portion of guaranteed base salary. Carlson sprained a knee in camp, suffered a concussion during the season and finished with only eight catches, leaving the Vikings to consider whether to keep him on the roster and guarantee another $1.2 million on top of the $7.9 million they've already given him. Four UFAs (FB Jerome Felton, OG Geoff Schwartz, LB Marvin Mitchell, WR Jerome Simpson) made the team on one-year deals, with Felton earning a Pro Bowl bid. Three other UFAs (CB Chris Carr, HB Lex Hilliard, CB Zack Bowman) lost out to younger players, having received only $75,000 combined in bonuses. The 10-man draft class produced two Pro Bowl picks (LT Matt Kalil and Walsh), another solid starter (FS Harrison Smith) and five other players (CB Josh Robinson, TE Rhett Ellison, WR Jarius Wright, S Robert Blanton, LB Audie Cole) who contributed. WR Greg Childs, a fourth-round draft pick, was lost to two torn patellar tendons in camp but has vowed to return. DL Trevor Guyton, a seventh-rounder, missed the cut. OL Mark Asper, claimed off waivers from Buffalo on cutdown weekend, was inactive for 14 weeks before his release. CB A.J. Jefferson, acquired from Arizona in a trade for a flop of low-round draft picks, played extensively during CB Chris Cook's injury absence with underwhelming results. None of the 15 college free agents signed after the draft made the team, though two (NT Chase Baker and CB Bobby Felder) spent the entire season on the practice squad and were re-signed to reserve/futures deals. Baker received the largest bonus ($10,000). The only significant dead money on the 2013 salary cap is for veteran S Eric Frampton ($333,334), a core special teamer who was released in the final cutdown. The Vikings are projected to be around $12 million under their adjusted cap when the league year begins in March, although that number could rise with cuts or restructures. They have a decision to make on Harvin, who expects a new contract to replace the last year of his rookie deal, as well as a handful of veterans. They have 10 potential UFAs, led by RT Phil Loadholt, Felton and S Jamarca Sanford. They have eight picks in April's draft and a list of needs that begins with receiver, defensive tackle and middle linebacker. The jury remains out on Ponder, who is entering a critical third season at the most important position.