It had all the makings of a story book ending. After falling behind 10-9 and enduring a painful Adrian Peterson fumble, Teddy Bridgewater led the Vikings into chip shot field goal range for a potential game winner against the heavily favored Seattle Seahawks.
It all fell on the shoulders of Blair Walsh, one of the top field goal kickers in the league, who had already been perfect in three attempts to give the Vikings all their points. The 27 yard attempt — six yards shorter than an extra point — was smacked to the left. The Vikings lost and Blair Walsh went from hero to goat in a blink of an eye.
Fan boards lit up with people trashing Walsh, saying he couldn’t be trusted for the “big kick” and blaming him for the loss. Walsh himself took the blame, saying he didn’t do the job his team counted on him to do. However, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer got it right: “We win as a team, we lose as a team.”
Blair Walsh missed. Adrian Peterson fumbled. Teddy Bridgewater didn’t see a wide open Stephan Diggs. Blocks and tackles were missed. In the course of the game points were won or lost on the basis of the small errors or extraordinary plays that make up a game. Yet nobody faces the pressure a field goal kicker does, especially on a kick like this he’s expected to make.
If he makes it, well, that’s his job. If he misses it, he gets blamed. And though Walsh has won many games in the closing seconds, one failure gets etched in the fans’ collective memory more firmly than all the successes.
Savvy spectators might say holder Jeff Locke bears part of the blame for not spinning the laces away (Walsh would have none of that, saying he should have been able to kick a watermelon through at that distance), but the bottom line is that even the best kicker is human. Humans make mistakes. When a kicker makes a mistake at the end of a playoff game it is magnified to epic proportions.
People seem to have a harder time forgiving kickers. Last year when Wilson threw his interception that lost the Seahawks the Super Bowl, more criticism was placed on Coach Carroll for not calling a running play. But Wilson had to know that any result except an interception was acceptable. Yet he had played the whole game, his failure seemed easier to forgive.
None of that is fair. Blair Walsh is a superb kicker and I hope he stays with the Vikings for years. I would have no trouble trusting him to kick in a similar situation in the future. I’m sure no Viking is taking the loss as hard as Walsh is; he knows that forever he’ll be associated with his kick – just like Gary Anderson is for his only miss in the 1998 season. It’s not fair, but it is what it is.
As a Vikings fan, I am at peace with the result. Many games are lost in a heartbreaking manner. A blown play on an onside kick lost the Packers a trip to the Super Bowl last year. I mentioned Wilson’s interception. It’s part of the game. Overall, the Vikings had a superb season, as Mike Zimmer, my choice for coach of the year, builds a powerful young defense. Teddy Bridgewater is learning and improving. I have no doubt that next year the Vikings will be back and I would like nothing better than to see Blair Walsh called to win a game in the closing seconds.
But for now he has to suffer the slings and arrows of know it all fans who want to put him down – most of whom probably couldn’t kick a ball as high as the uprights, let alone through them – and his own effort to come to terms with the fact that this miss is forever a part of him.
I’m confident Walsh will succeed and become stronger because of this – failures have a way of building a person up, even if they seem devastating at the time. And no kicker has the success Walsh has had over the years without mental toughness.
There is a larger lesson in all this. Each of us faces failure more often then we wish. Often we are devastated by it, or can get mired in guilt or shame. But failure is human, it’s how we grow. Walsh would destroy his career if he couldn’t accept this and remain confident and willing to take risks. That’s how we all need to face failure in life – we just don’t have the spotlight shining as bright as it does on a kicker at the end of the game. And as humans who err, we also need to forgive and recognize that even the best people can fail. It’s what comes afterward that matters most.