'Cursed franchise' or management problem? How Minnesota Vikings keep reliving nightmare of missed field goals
Wide left and wide right they have sailed.
Gary Anderson’s botched 38-yarder late in the 1998 NFC championship game, Greg Joseph’s blown 37-yarder on the final play last week and a litany of errant kicks in between that have haunted the Minnesota Vikings.
“It seems to be one of those cursed franchise things, right?'' said Chris Kluwe, the former Vikings punter who served as the team’s holder from 2006-12.
The problem has grown even more acute.
In two of the past three seasons, the Vikings have finished last in field-goal percentage. Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, Minnesota is 8-15-1 in regular-season games decided by three or fewer points.
But there's no reason to rush any exorcisms, seances or witchcraft.
There are rational explanations for the team's chronic kicking problems, at least according to former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, former special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf and former kicking consultant Nate Keading, among others interviewed by USA TODAY Sports.
Longwell said the blame lies with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman for excessive turnover that has kept the kickers, holders and long snappers from developing continuity.
During seven-plus seasons under Zimmer, the Vikings have used five kickers, along with multiple long snappers and holders.
“So there’s no comfort, there’s no stability and there’s no rhythm and routine," said Longwell, who had the same holder and long snapper when he played for the Vikings from 2006-11. “There’s an understanding missed in that front office of just how important the cadence and the rhythm and the routine is of three guys together.
“When it’s crunch time and you need it the most, that is where everything shows up."
Neither Spielman nor Zimmer responded to USA TODAY Sports' request for comment.
The Vikings’ heartbreaking misses include Blair Walsh yanking a 27-yarder that would have won the game wide left in a 2015 wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. For sheer Vikings futility, the team experienced a notable low last season.
On Dec. 13, in Minnesota's 26-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dan Bailey missed all four of his kicks – field goal attempts of 36 yards, 46 yards and 54 yards and an extra point – and, according to ESPN, became the first player since 1961 with at least three missed field goals and a missed extra point with no makes.
"Let’s not put this all on Dan Bailey," Zimmer said at the time.
But when the season ended three games later, the Vikings dumped Bailey and brought in Joseph, the team's fifth kicker since the 2016 season.
“It seems like it’s something as simple as not being patient with guys, because they couldn’t have possibly picked five bad kickers in seven years," said Filip Filipovic, a former punter who trains kickers, including Greg Zuerlein of the Dallas Cowboys and Austin Sebert of the Detroit Lions. "Nobody does that.''
As Longwell noted, he was cut by the Vikings after Spielman took over as the GM and the team rebuffed his offer to work with its kickers. But Kluwe, despite suggesting the Vikings are cursed, agreed with Longwell’s take on the importance of continuity – or a lack of it.
“That can definitely lead to issues,’’ Kluwe said. “You really want to have a comfortable rhythm between the snapper, holder and kicker to give yourself the best chance of success. I know that one of the reasons we were so successful was that me, Ryan and (former Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler) were together for such a long time and knew how to make everything function smoothly, even if something went a little bit wrong somewhere.
“When you’re talking about a 1.2-second operation, every tenth of a second matters."
Maalouf, the Vikings’ special teams coordinator in 2019 and 2020, said the Vikings placed less emphasis on special teams than did the Baltimore Ravens, for whom he worked as an assistant special teams coach from 2008-11, and Miami Dolphins, for whom he held the same role from 2013- 18.
With the Ravens and Dolphins, according to Maalouf, the special teams coaches had influence on which kicker, punter and long snapper the teams signed. He said he wasn’t sure how the process worked with the Vikings despite spending the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the team before the Vikings decided not to renew his contract.
Maalouf also cited “overreaction” when asked about the kicking woes.
In 13 years of coaching in the NFL before he joined the Vikings, Maalouf said, none of the teams he worked for cut a kicker during the season. But the Vikings, he noted, did just that in 2018.
Daniel Carlson, selected by the Vikings in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, made his only field goal attempt in his NFL debut. But in his second game, Carlson was 0-for-3, missing a field-goal attempt in regulation and two more attempts in overtime during his second game.
The Vikings waived him the next day.
Carlson signed with the Raiders midway through the 2018 campaign and set the single-season franchise record for field-goal percentage at 94.1% – a mark he bested last year at 94.3%. In Las Vegas' season-opening win over the Baltimore Ravens, the fourth-year pro converted a 55-yard field goal attempt with two seconds remaining to send the contest to overtime.
Meanwhile, since releasing Carlson, the Vikings are on their second kicker.
“Daniel Carlson, I think was an overreaction,’’ Maalouf said of the Vikings’ decision to cut him. “One hundred percent.’’
Maalouf arrived in Minnesota after the 2018 season, and soon he got help.
The Vikings hired Kaeding, a retired two-time Pro Bowl kicker who played for the San Diego Chargers from 2004-12 and ranks 11th in NFL history in career field-goal percentage (86.19%). Bailey, who signed with the Vikings after Carlson was cut, was a disappointment in 2018 while making only 75% (21 of his 28) of his field-goal attempts. But with Kaeding around in 2019, Bailey made 93.1% (27 of 29) of his field-goal attempts.
In 2020, Kaeding said, the pandemic prevented him from rejoining the team. Without the kicking consultant, Bailey made only 68.2% (15 of 22) of his field-goal attempts.
The Vikings cut Bailey and let things fizzle with Kaeding, who said he's unsure why the team never brought him back. He said the specialized positions of kicker and punter warrant additional attention.
“The fact that more teams don’t dedicate more resources to assist those guys with what they need to do and get done, to me is backwards,’’ he said.
Kaeding, Longwell and Maalouf each cited the Ravens as a model for kicking success. It starts with the Ravens' kicker, Justin Tucker, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the most accurate player at his position in league history. But when John Harbaugh became head coach of the Ravens in 2008, he brought in Randy Brown as a kicking consultant.
Now a special teams coach, Brown is in his 14th year with Baltimore.
“You’d be hard-pressed not to attribute at least some of that (success) to Coach Harbaugh and the support system that he’s been able to provide there for those specialists,'' said Naeding, who added, "Generally speaking, I think NFL franchises would benefit from having a lot more continuity amongst the guys. I think at some point in time it can be the tendency to make a knee-jerk change.
“You know, they’re human.’’
But after Joseph missed a 37-yarder as time expired Sunday in the Vikings’ 34-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, will he be the latest casualty in the team’s kicking carousel?
Zimmer, the Vikings head coach, met the media the day after the game.
"Lots of kickers miss field goals,’’ he said. “Let's give the kid a break, OK?"