Kicking Ain’t Easy

One of the early storylines of the Vikings’ season has surrounded kicker Blair Walsh, who struggled in the preseason, missed a field goal in the season opener, and yesterday missed an extra point. This comes after Walsh signed an off-season extension, leading fans and writers to blame the Vikings for a bad move and wonder what went wrong with Walsh, who had previously been one of the league’s most consistent kickers.

The fan discussion surrounding Walsh is pretty typical when it comes to kickers in my experience. Sports fans are often prone to making swift premature judgments about teams and players, but kickers get the brunt of this effect more than any other position. I have a few theories about why this is the case.

I suspect one reason is that kickers are often not perceived to be “real athletes” in the way other NFL players are — they’re the little dork who comes in and mops up after a touchdown, or the guy who puts three points on the board after a failed drive while you go to the concession stand. They play a different game from everyone else on the team, so it is easy to treat them as if they aren’t really football players.

This feeds into a general widespread ignorance about the art of kicking — because it’s not “real football,” kicking is almost never analyzed with the depth that the rest of the game is. On a show like SportsCenter, there are almost always in depth breakdowns of quarterback play, discussions about defensive tactics, and even analysis of offensive line play. The analysts networks employ universally played the “real” football positions, so they break down the game from that perspective.

What I’ve never seen on one of these football shows is a former kicker talking about how kicking works. Does it become more or less difficult based on where you’re positioned on the field? How much of a factor is wind? How stressful is it mentally when the game is on the line? How important is the snap and hold to a kick’s success? These are questions that I and most fans really don’t know the answers to, because kicking has never been treated as a real athletic play.

So instead of treating field goal kicking as a difficult athletic achievement, it is usually viewed as being automatic. If a kicker makes a field goal, he just did what he was supposed to, so who cares. Meanwhile, misses are treated as if they’re an egregious error, like a waiter dropped your food in your lap. “How could he do that? I was supposed to be eating now! I can’t believe how disrespectful and unprofessional this is!”

This has always struck me as a very narrow-minded and poor method of evaluating and discussing kicking. With every other position in every other sport, there is some acceptance that the player is not going to succeed some percentage of the time, because they’re human. If LeBron James misses a shot, we don’t start scratching our heads and wondering if he needs to see a medical professional. When Aaron Rodgers throws an incomplete pass, we don’t start immediately wondering if he’s going to get cut or what his retirement plans are.

Yet kickers are held to this completely absurd standard where their jobs are seemingly on the line with every kick. So a player like Blair Walsh misses a handful of field goals and suddenly there’s already discussions about the team “bringing in some competition” for him, and fans are yelling about how terrible he is. This doesn’t seem fair to me at all.

I think Blair Walsh is a very good kicker. I’ve been impressed with his leg strength and accuracy (especially from long range) for most of his Vikings career. As recently as October of last year, Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight was discussing Walsh as one of a trio of historically great active kickers. I’m skeptical that Walsh has suddenly turned from a kicker who was that good to someone who isn’t even worth having around at age 25.

What is the explanation for Walsh’s struggles, then? Well, here’s a crazy idea: maybe no explanation is needed. It’s obvious that kickers can’t make every field goal they try, even great ones like Walsh, who has a career 84% field goal percentage (this ranks 13th all-time, by the way). Given the random nature of statistics, it is very possible that an 84% kicker could have a random stretch where he only makes 5 kicks out of 11, which is the much-publicized horrifying slump that happened to Walsh in the preseason.

Note that sample size: 11 kicks. This is another area of kicking I feel is unexplored. Kickers only get around 30 opportunities in an average season, which doesn’t feel like it would be a sufficient sample to evaluate their abilities. And even beyond that, they’re often judged solely by these microscopic selective samples, where people find the stretch where they’ve “slumped” and missed a handful of kicks. All the methods most people use to evaluate kickers seem unfair to the players, who have a great amount of skill that goes largely under-appreciated.

I’m skeptical that Walsh’s struggles are anything other than some statistical noise. If someone has scouting evidence that he’s doing something differently or has a mechanical flaw in his kicking approach, that could convince me. The shouting of a bunch of fans who frankly probably don’t understand how kicking actually works will not. It should take more than a few missed field goals to write off a player with Walsh’s track record.

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