What’s So Special About Special Teams?

Dan Bailey Vikings Kicker Missing Kick
Dec 13, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Minnesota Vikings kicker Dan Bailey (5) react after a missed field goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The kick only missed by a yard, if that. 

Vikings placekicker Greg Joseph came that close to hitting the game-winner last weekend; that close to evening Minnesota’s record at 1-1, from giving all of us a reason to smile straight through Sunday night and into the work week. Instead, we all slogged our way through Monday with the eternal weight of Viking fandom joining forces with the burdens of crappy jobs and overbearing bosses and corrupt leaders and lost loves and bad decisions, dragging us down, down, down into a morass of suffering that we believe only we can know and understand. 

The only man I know who whines about field goal kickers more than Viking fans–who have honestly believed, in the aftermath of every missed field goal from Gary Anderson’s infamous fade to the left in the NFC Championship Game in early 1999, that we are permanently cursed with subpar placekickers–is Mike Zimmer. The Viking Head Coach has ranted at, berated, and publicly shamed a series of kickers during his reign, and after his presser on Monday, it would seem he is finally taking a new tack. 

“Lots of kickers miss field goals,” Zimmer shrugged, “so let’s give the kid a break, OK?”

Indeed. But the dirty little secret that is hiding in plain sight is, it’s an understatement to say lots of kickers miss field goals. More accurately: ALL kickers miss field goals. To which, I say, plan accordingly. 

I’ve heard more than one analysis of Joseph’s push to the right, as “a kick he has to make.” That’s certainly true in that, if we wanted to win the game, he had to make it. But that kind of absolute statement ignores the fact that it is unreasonable to expect a sure-fire result from 37 yards out, and removes the decisions that preceded the miss from consideration as the source of the loss. 

The reality is, all kickers will miss field goals; fans and coaches alike need to understand that it’s just a matter of odds. NFL kickers over the last 20 years have made similar 37-yard field goals just a shade under 85% of the time. That means NFL kickers will, on average, miss that kick once every 6 or 7 times they try. 

So, let’s be clear, 85% is most definitely not a sure thing. It’s just nice odds. When a kick like that misses by a yard, go ahead and feel depressed for two days like I did, but don’t act like it’s some sort of statistical shocker. 

If the new-look Mike Zimmer, who’s begging the rest of us to “give the kid a break”, had really seen the light and understood that “lots (i.e., all) kickers miss field goals”, then, one would think, that he would have played his cards a bit different at the end of the game, and improved his, and his young kicker’s, odds. Kirk Cousins had done a masterful job leading the team down the field, with key, clutch receptions from Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn. They took their time running their last play from scrimmage, and still had 40 ticks on the clock and one timeout remaining when Osborn made his catch between the hash marks. From there, 37 yards away, the percentages said: 85% chance. There was plenty of time to spike the ball, run another high-percentage pass play or two, with that last time out still in the pocket. Move the ball just another 9 yards, and the NFL make percentage jumps from 85% to 95%. Now that would have been truly giving the kid a break. 

What might have led Zimmer to suddenly become a bastion of sensitivity, the patron saint of protecting the psyches of newly-signed kickers? A knowledge that he himself let down his kicker (and his team, and their fans) by playing the passive approach while time ran down? A knowledge that he previously ran over a series of otherwise-worthy kickers in the years prior? Both? 

If you’re raising your eyebrows at the notion our previous kickers were “otherwise worthy” (misses and/or slumps nothwithstanding), consider this: I was curious–so I looked up the list of kickers whose lifetime field goal percentages are the highest of all time, (at least 100 attempts), according to Pro Football Reference. These are the all time greats. I wasn’t surprised to see that the top three are all among today’s current crop of elite kickers -in order, the top 3 are Justin Tucker (90.7%), Harrison Butker (90.4%) and Chris Boswell (88.2%). 

Here’s what did shock me: 

* #8 All Time: Ex-Viking KAI FORBATH. In his one full year here, he was Mr. Steady, making 89% of his field goal attempts. The league average during the Zimmer era, by the way, is 83%. He was, of course, cashed in for newer model Daniel Carlson, Rick Spielman’s #5 draft pick in 2018 who was unceremoniously sent away after after a tough pre-season, two bad regular season showings, and a steady flow of beratement from the “old”, less touchy-feely Zim. If he had enough kicks to qualify, Carlson would rank 16th on this list. 

* At #12: Ex-Viking DAN BAILEY. OK, that didn’t surprise me given his years as Mr. Steady in Dallas, though he went 69%-93%-75% in his three nerve-racking (for him and for us) years with Minnesota. 

* #29 Ex-Viking RYAN LONGWELL. He predates Zimmer and was Mr. Steady for us, and for the Packers before that.   

* And, at #37 among the all-time greats, Ex-Viking BLAIR WALSH. Remember his pre-Zimmer rookie year? 92% field goal percentage? 10-for-10 from 50+? All-Pro Kicker? And yes, an unforgettably terrible miss vs. in a first-round playoff matchup against Seattle. 

That’s quite a list of otherwise-successful kickers the Vikings have ground through in the past decade. So, the next time you think that we as Vikings fans are so special because our kickers are so much more inept than everyone else’s kickers, stop and consider that in the last 10 years we had two top-forty all-time kickers on our roster for the first half of the decade, and two top-twenty all-time kickers (perhaps one day upgraded to three) in the latter half. I hate to break it to you, and especially to Coach Zimmer, but there’s nothing special about us when it comes to our special teams suffering, at least from the kicker position. We’re not cursed with bad kickers. We’ve had some highly capable kickers here who, for some not-so-mysterious reason, had more struggles wearing purple than when playing anywhere else. Viking luck? The Zimmer Effect? Who knows?

The bottom line is, all kickers miss. As with any form of suffering, real or imagined, it’s not what you perceive to be the suffering that really matters, so much as how you choose to handle it.