The NFC Wild Card matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings came down to a last-second kick by Blair Walsh of the Vikings. With 26 seconds left on the clock, Walsh was called in to make a 27-yard field goal from the left hash. When he missed, the Internet simultaneously lost its mind and we saw a plethora of kicking experts reveal themselves on Twitter despite having never kicked a football in any conditions. Chuck Zodda breaks down why Walsh missed the kick.
Blair Walsh takes a standard three-steps-back, two-steps-over setup that is common for most NFL kickers:
The pre-kick alignment is done with the center upright as the target, meaning that regardless of where the kick is coming from on the field, it is always lined up to the center of the target. This means that Walsh does not need to adjust his steps or try to curve the ball in any way. He simply angles his approach, and then takes the same swing he always does, trying to drive the ball straight through the uprights.
The snap on an NFL field goal or extra point is 8 yards, and should be at the left shoulder of the holder for a right-footed kicker. Almost as important, the goal of a long snapper is to match up the rotational speed to the speed of the snap in such a way that the holder typically does not have to do much work spinning the ball to have the laces facing out. While the primary responsibility is to get the ball to the holder, NFL snappers need to be able to adjust the number of rotations on the ball to account for different grip conditions.
Walsh takes a jab step with his left foot, as is common for many kickers in today’s NFL. The snap is right on the money, directly at the left shoulder of Locke. However, the laces are facing directly down instead of straight up, meaning Locke needs to spin the ball 180 degrees to face them away from Walsh. If Locke cannot complete a full turn, he risks having the laces at an angle and creating an uneven contact point for Walsh. With Locke wearing gloves because of the extreme cold, he opts to place the ball as it is, rather than attempting a spin with an unfamiliar grip.
While striking the laces directly may cause some variation with the flight of the ball, it is more likely to result in a loss of distance due to the maximum compression not being applied directly to the football than side-to-side action. Off-center laces may cause a hook or slice, but a direct impact does not usually result in significant movement in these ways.
It is important to note that McDermott and Locke had struggled with these issues throughout the game, and had likely discussed the situation with Walsh. These decisions do not happen in a vacuum, and the entire battery was likely aware this was the course of action in the event of a snap without the proper rotation. Kickers and holders enjoy a unique relationship, in that the kicker is incredibly dependent on the holder to complete his job. A holder is not going to change tactics without discussing it first with his kicker, as the goal is to have as few surprises as possible during the 1.2 seconds from snap to kick.
Locke has the ball down with the laces facing back. Many people have suggested that this was a poor hold because of the fact it was angled toward Locke. However, most kickers prefer a ball tilted slightly away from them as they kick, as it creates a rounder and smoother surface for them to strike, as well as correcting for the tendency of a ball placed straight down to hook. The angle used here is appropriate and typical for an NFL kicker, and in no way caused any of the problems on this kick.
In both of these kicks, there is significantly more distance between Walsh’s plant foot and the ball.
Why is this important?
The leg swing on a field goal or extra point is similar to a golf swing in that a kicker is trying to take rotational force and impart it directly through the ball. This requires creating a stable swing plane that comes at an angle to the ball but that is moving directly through the target at impact. If a kicker is too far from a ball, he will spin off the ball and hit a ball with a weak, slicing flight, just like a golfer swinging from the outside-in. Likewise, if a kicker is too close to the ball, his leg will not have adequate distance to swing, and he will whip around the outside of the ball, hitting a low, hooking shot.
This is part of what happens here. Walsh does not have sufficient clearance for his foot to move directly through the ball. While a kicker typically tries to make contact with the hard bone on top of his foot, Walsh instead makes contact closer to his ankle:
Remember that the laces were dead-center when Locke placed the ball. Walsh is now making contact with nearly the top of his cleat as his foot wraps around this ball. In this part of the foot, there are a number of uneven surfaces – the cleat line, ankle bone, and tongue of the shoe all come to mind as potential contact points here. Any one of these surfaces interacting with the laces could have caused the trajectory we witnessed, and it is likely the interaction of this and the laces back that were the reasons for the miss.
In short, three things went wrong on this kick: A snap that did not have the correct number of rotations on it, a holder who did not spin the laces away from the kicker, and a plant step that was too close to the ball to allow Walsh’s natural technique to occur. Walsh likely made his earlier kicks because all three did not occur at once on any of those kicks – while he did see laces earlier in the day, his plant step was generally wider and more stable. If any one of these does not occur here, the Vikings are likely on to the Divisional Round. But the convergence of all three of these, likely because of the frigid conditions, caused the kick to quickly veer left of the uprights as the Vikings fell to the Seahawks.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.