NFL Nation: Blair Walsh

MINNEAPOLIS -- There is, at last, purple smoke from the Minnesota Vikings' offices. The team has announced its 2014 coaching staff, adding some previously unreported names to a group of coaches that had largely been identified weeks ago. But now that the Vikings have a staff in place -- and have confirmed, as many had expected, that special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer is on it -- they will be confronted with the obvious question:

[+] EnlargeMike Priefer
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Vikings are keeping Mike Priefer on staff at least until their internal investigation is complete.
Why keep Priefer on the staff before the conclusion of an internal investigation the team pledged it was taking seriously?

That question will linger for several days, and possibly longer, without an answer from the Vikings; neither Priefer nor new head coach Mike Zimmer is being made available to reporters to discuss the decision on Thursday, though both Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are expected to make some brief remarks at the team's annual Arctic Blast Snowmobile Rally fundraiser on Saturday morning. But the inclusion of Priefer on the Vikings' 2014 staff might not mean the case is closed on the investigation.

It is easier for investigators Eric Magnuson and Chris Madel to get in contact with Priefer if he's still in town, employed by the team with a stake in the game, so to speak. In fact, my sense of things is that the Vikings knew that letting Priefer go now would make it more difficult for investigators to conclude their work in an accurate and timely manner. If, when the review is finished, investigators have proved that Priefer is responsible for reprehensible conduct, the Vikings can discipline or dismiss him then. Until that point, though, why put a well-respected special-teams coach on the open market when you're not sure what will happen?

Priefer was the driving force behind the Vikings drafting Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh, and played a large role in the decision to trade up and take Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round last year. Priefer seems likely to click with Zimmer, a fellow coach's son who touted the virtues of that pedigree at his opening news conference -- and put his own son, as well as the son of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, on his first Vikings staff. Dismissing Priefer now would have essentially rendered a guilty verdict in the middle of the investigation, and would have required the Vikings to part with an asset they seem to value. It would have been one thing if Zimmer and Priefer didn't see eye-to-eye, or if Zimmer had his own special-teams coordinator he wanted to hire. But otherwise, there's nothing forcing the Vikings to levy discipline in the middle of the investigation when they can wait and see if the results of the investigation compel them to do something.

The counterargument to all of this, of course, is that the Vikings are effectively giving Priefer a clean slate by announcing now that he will be on their 2014 staff. But let's be realistic: If the investigation makes it obvious the Vikings need to part with Priefer, they will do so, whether it's in January or February or June.

At the moment, they're simply saying they like the results Priefer has produced on the field, and that he's innocent until proven guilty, or at least liable. That might not be true in the court of public opinion, but it should also not be construed to mean the Vikings have washed their hands of the situation. Considering where they are now, the wisest course of action might be to let things play out.

Upon Further Review: Eagles Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A review of four issues raised by the Philadelphia Eagles' 48-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Minnesota kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson is dangerous, so the Eagles decided to use short kickoffs that would be fielded by other members of the Vikings’ return team.

“It was a game plan, just like an offensive or defensive game plan,” cornerback and special teamer Roc Carmichael said. “We worked on it all week. We wanted to keep the ball out of (Patterson’s) hands. He’s a dynamic guy. We felt we could do better kicking it to the tight ends or fullbacks or those up guys.”

The strategy gave the Vikings consistently good field position. After kickoffs, they started drives at their 25, 38, 25, 34 and 46, respectively. If Alex Henery had simply kicked the ball out of the end zone, as Minnesota’s Blair Walsh did seven times, the Vikings would have started on their 20 each time.

“Even if you do kick it deep,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said, “he takes it out. He’s got a 109-yard kickoff return. We knew how dangerous he was, and we were just trying to keep the ball away from him.”

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Andy KingIt was a long day in Minnesota on Sunday for running back LeSean McCoy and the Eagles.
Fourth-and-a-half-yard: Kelly made one good point about his decision to go for it on fourth down at his own 24-yard line in the third quarter.

“You have to think on fourth-and-a-half-a-yard, we can get a half a yard,” Kelly said.

But LeSean McCoy's dive over left guard fell short. Kelly challenged the spot -- in for a penny, in for a pound -- and wound up losing a timeout.

“It started as a combination block with me and Evan (Mathis),” center Jason Kelce said. “The 'backers are flowing hard to their gaps, so you can’t stay on the double-team that long. When he left, I started pushing my guy to the left. Shady tried to hit that hole. It looked like he just dove forward. I’m not sure why we didn’t get it.”

It was McCoy’s second try to pick up that single yard. On third-and-1, he was stopped on a run around right end.

“We shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Kelce said, “if we did a better job on third down. We had a good play called, I thought. I was pulling. I got picked by one of the blocks inside. That made LeSean bounce it outside.”

Trying too hard: Eagles quarterback Nick Foles prides himself on being a team-first guy. So when he had to block a linebacker on a reverse, he didn’t settle for the usual quarterback patty-cake block. He dove in an attempt to take the player out.

“In the heat of battle, I made a mistake,” Foles said. “I made a block that I thought would help the team. You cannot turn back on someone and do that. I am at fault and the referee made the correct call.”

The penalty for an illegal peel-back block negated DeSean Jackson's touchdown. The Eagles instead kicked a field goal. The irony is that the pattycake block -- just getting in front of the defender -- would have been effective in springing Jackson.

“He has to seal that guy,” Kelly said. “I don’t think he had to cut him.”

Unraveling: Things got messy for the Eagles toward the end of the game.

Jackson made a great run after a short pass from Foles, making five defenders miss for a 51-yard gain to the Minnesota 4-yard line. The normally up-tempo Eagles couldn’t get a play off before the clock ran down and were flagged for delay of game.

After Foles’ 16-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant made it 41-28, the kicking team started on the field. Kelly had to waste a timeout to set up for the two-point conversion.

“It was just a miscommunication upstairs,” Kelly said. “We should have gone for two, and that’s on me.”

Then there was the wave of penalties: Carmichael for taunting, Patrick Chung and Cary Williams for unnecessary roughness, Carmichael for 30 yards for pass interference.

Carmichael said he and Vikings wide receiver Rodney Smith had been going back and forth all game on special teams.

“I told him it was going to be a long day,” Carmichael said. “I turned around and there was a flag. It’s part of the game.”

Williams didn’t talk to reporters after the game.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Since Sunday's 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer has thought about Jacoby Jones' 77-yard fourth-quarter kick return touchdown "a thousand times."

What he's come to, he said Thursday, is that the Vikings won't use their coverage scheme from the "mortar kick" to Jones again.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Jacoby Jones
Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty ImagesThe Ravens' Jacoby Jones burned the Vikings with a 77-yard kickoff return for a TD late in the fourth quarter last Sunday.
The Vikings had contained Jones all day when Blair Walsh lined up to kick off after Toby Gerhart's touchdown run with 1:27 left. But they had done the same thing with Devin Hester the week before, and Hester returned a kickoff 57 yards in the fourth quarter, setting up the Chicago Bears' 66-yard field goal try as time expired in regulation. The kick missed, and Priefer ordered a mortar kick in overtime, which Michael Ford -- not Hester -- fielded at the Bears 22.

"The one thing I was concerned about is that we had kicked one out of bounds the play before, the kickoff before," Priefer said. "We could've put it on the ground again, but I wasn't sure. I got a little nervous. I didn't want to give them the ball at the 40-yard line. So that was going through my head, and I figured that we had been covering them well, but I flashed back to the week before -- we had covered Hester well the entire game until the one kick. I thought the best course of action would be to kick the mortar kick. That's what I recommended to our head coach, and that's what he went with. Obviously, it didn't work out for us."

The problem, Priefer said, was that the Ravens diagnosed the mortar kick when they saw Walsh's short approach, and told Jones to start inching up to field a short kickoff. Walsh needed to see that and go to a different plan, Priefer said, and on the return, the Ravens sealed off an alley for Jones to race down the left sideline.

"They read it perfectly. They did a good job. I got outcoached on that play, unfortunately," Priefer said. "We didn't execute it well enough. We had guys over there. We had, I think, two of them got pinned inside. He hit that seam full-speed. It was not a very good call on my part, and it was not schemed up well on my part. I've got to give credit to them. They did a nice job, and got the ball in their best playmaker's hands."

If there was an encouraging development on Sunday for Priefer, it was how well Walsh and punter Jeff Locke performed in the snowy weather. Walsh hit two field goals, and Locke averaged 44.1 yards on nine punts. That kind of a performance could come in handy with the Vikings moving outdoors to the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium the next two seasons.

"I knew pregame we had a chance to be real successful on punts and kickoffs because the way our young guys, those two young kids, approached the game," Priefer said. "They were, like, ‘This is going to be fun.’ I mean, I have a kid from Arizona that went to UCLA and a kid from Florida that went to Georgia. They went out there and did a fantastic job for us, and I was real proud of them. There were a lot of positives for us in that game, but it came down to one play. Again, that’s the one that hurt us."

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 13

December, 2, 2013
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A review of four hot issues after the Minnesota Vikings' 23-20 win over the Chicago Bears:

Peterson wills his way past Bears: Adrian Peterson might not have all of his breakaway speed as he plays with a strained groin, but the performance he turned in on Sunday was the kind of tour de force he churned out so often in the second half of his MVP season a year ago. Peterson ran for 211 yards against a steady diet of eight- and nine-man fronts; he faced at least eight defenders in the box on 24 of his 35 carries, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and averaged more yards per carry with eight or more in the box (6.1) than he did against seven defenders or fewer (5.8).

[+] EnlargeRhett Ellison
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsRhett Ellison's tipped ball for an interception was one of his two crucial plays that could have cost Minnesota the game.
QB decision looming: The Vikings will wait to see how Christian Ponder recovers from a concussion as they try to make a decision on their quarterback for Sunday's game in Baltimore, but Matt Cassel once again had the Vikings' offense running smoother than Ponder has at many points this year. Cassel threw for 243 yards, and handled extra pressure better than either Ponder or Josh Freeman has this season. He hit 11 of his 17 throws for 148 yards and a touchdown against five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His completion percentage against such fronts (65.9 percent this season) is better than Ponder's (61.9 percent) or Freeman's (33.3 percent). Cassel could be competing with either Ponder and Freeman, or just Freeman, to play next week against the Ravens, but he did enough to possibly get another start.

Special teams confusion: The end of Sunday's game brought a number of odd special teams situations that seemed to confuse the Vikings. First, after Blair Walsh tied the game in regulation, the Vikings kicked deep to Devin Hester, who returned the ball 57 yards and might have scored if Walsh hadn't angled him out of bounds. Coach Leslie Frazier admitted after the game the Vikings shouldn't have kicked to Hester, adding they expected him to down the ball in the end zone like he had with Walsh's other deep picks. When the Bears tried a 67-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, the Vikings hurried Cordarrelle Patterson out to return the kick, barely getting him on the field in time. And then, after Rhett Ellison's face mask penalty wiped out Walsh's would-be game-winning field goal in overtime, the Vikings' field goal unit stayed on the field before the offense came back out to try to get Walsh closer than 54 yards on third down. Frazier said the Vikings wanted to get 4 more yards for Walsh, but Peterson lost three and Walsh missed from 57.

Ellison gets "elephant off my back:" Had the Vikings lost, Ellison likely would have worn much of the blame; he couldn't control what might have been a touchdown pass from Cassel with less than five minutes to play. He wound up tipping the ball toward the Bears' defense, where Khaseem Greene wound up intercepting it and running it back to midfield. Then, Ellison's face mask penalty negated Walsh's field goal, setting off a bizarre scene in which referees sorted things out amid postgame fireworks. Wide receiver Greg Jennings had to be pulled back from the tunnel up to the Vikings' locker room. Asked what he was thinking after the mistakes, Ellison replied, "That I really screwed the team over and that I made a big mistake." And when Walsh hit the game-winning field goal, Ellison said it was "like an elephant off my back. I don't know. It was just a miracle, I guess."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson did not practice on Wednesday because of a lingering right hamstring injury, but based on how the Vikings proceeded with Peterson last week and what he said about the injury after Monday's loss to the New York Giants, there's little reason to think Peterson won't play on Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings held Peterson out of one practice last week and limited him twice before the Giants game, and while Peterson said after Monday's game he could feel his hamstring, it wasn't a huge detriment to his game. He'll likely get a light workload all week in practice, but the injury doesn't seem like one that would cause him to miss time.

In other Vikings injury news:
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman (concussion) did not practice, and coach Leslie Frazier said earlier Wednesday that Christian Ponder "more than likely" will start on Sunday.
  • Running back Matt Asiata (shoulder) and tight end Rhett Ellison (ankle) were both held out of practice. Wide receiver Rodney Smith (hip), who didn't play on Monday against the Giants, also didn't practice.
  • Defensive back A.J. Jefferson (ankle) and left tackle Matt Kalil (low back) were limited; Jefferson missed Monday's game, while Kalil played through his injury.
  • Kicker Blair Walsh (left hamstring) was again limited. Walsh was short on a 53-yard field goal on Monday, the first time in his career he'd missed from longer than 50 yards, and ceded kickoff duties to Jeff Locke.
  • Lastly, linebacker Chad Greenway was limited with a wrist injury.

Adrian Peterson likely to play Monday

October, 19, 2013
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is likely to play with a hamstring injury on Monday night against the New York Giants, coach Leslie Frazier said on Saturday. Peterson missed practice on Friday, but was back at practice with the team on Saturday and will be listed as probable for the game, Frazier said.

"He practiced well today," Frazier said. "That was encouraging."

Frazier said offensive tackle Matt Kalil will be listed as questionable with back tightness. Though Kalil said he expects to play on Monday if he doesn't have any setbacks, he will need to wait and see how he feels on game day before making a final determination.

Kalil is listed as questionable on the Vikings' injury report.

"I'll see where I'm at Monday, and see if I can play. I can judge that, if it's going to hurt me or if I can play," he said. "From the way I felt yesterday and the way I felt today, if it keeps progressing, I'm pretty confident in Monday."

In other Vikings injury news:
  • Cornerback A.J. Jefferson was listed as doubtful with a sprained ankle, but Frazier said the Vikings plan to hold him out on Monday. It will be the second game he's missed in the Vikings' past three, and the decision means Jacob Lacey, who re-signed with the team this week after getting cut at the end of training camp, will likely be active.
  • Kicker Blair Walsh (left hamstring) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) returned to full participation on Saturday. Both are probable for Monday.
  • Wide receiver Rodney Smith, who was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster this week, will likely miss Monday's game, Frazier said. Officially, Smith is questionable with a hip injury, but Frazier said Smith was likely to be among the Vikings' inactives anyway.
  • Defensive end Jared Allen was limited for a second straight day with an ankle injury, but is probable for Monday.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Adrian Peterson missed practice for the Minnesota Vikings on Friday because of a hamstring issue that also limited the running back on Thursday, but coach Leslie Frazier said there is no major concern about Peterson missing the Vikings' Monday night game against the New York Giants.

Peterson
Peterson
"His hamstring was a little tight, so we held him out of practice," Frazier said. "We expect Adrian to practice tomorrow."

The Vikings also kept cornerback A.J. Jefferson (sprained ankle) and offensive tackle Matt Kalil (back tightness) out of practice, but Frazier said both players are likely to practice on Saturday, as well. Of those three players, Jefferson seems most likely to possibly miss Monday's game against the Giants; he did not practice on Thursday, and was out of the Vikings' Sept. 29 game with the Pittsburgh Steelers because of the injury.

Frazier also said the Vikings are waiting to see if safety Harrison Smith's turf toe will require surgery, and based on what the coach said, the only chance Smith would have to return this season would be if he can recover without surgery. Smith is on injured reserve with a designation to return in eight weeks, but if he did need an operation, Frazier said, he would face a four-to-six month recovery, which would obviously end his season.

Essentially, the Vikings' only chance to get Smith back this season is if his injury heals on its own -- or at least improves to the point where he can play through it.

"We're going to take this approach and re-evaluate it at the end of that six weeks (before Smith can practice)," Frazier said. "There's a possibility he won't need it. There's some guys that haven't had to do it. We'll see if he can go out and do anything, and if not, we'll take the next approach."

In other Vikings' injury news:
  • Kicker Blair Walsh (left hamstring) was back to limited participation in practice after sitting out on Thursday; Walsh played last Sunday with the injury, but did not kick off.
  • Defensive end Jared Allen appeared on the injury report for the first time, his participation limited because of an ankle injury.
  • Wide receiver Jarius Wright (ankle) returned to full participation, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) was limited again.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson returned to practice on Thursday after attending a funeral for his 2-year-old son on Wednesday, but Peterson was limited because of a hamstring injury.

Peterson has not been on the Vikings' injury report because of a hamstring ailment this year, and while a major injury would likely have kept Peterson out of the entire practice, a lingering hamstring issue could pose a problem for the reigning NFL MVP on Monday night against the New York Giants. The Vikings, of course, construct their offense heavily around Peterson, and they're certainly hoping he'll be ready to go with Josh Freeman playing his first game this week.

We'll continue to monitor Peterson's status. If he can't play, Toby Gerhart would start at running back.

In other Vikings injury news:
  • Cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle) did not participate; he was initially injured in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns, and coach Leslie Frazier said Jefferson's injury flared up on him this week.
  • Kicker Blair Walsh (hamstring) also missed practice. Walsh did not kick off on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers because of the same injury, which is to his non-kicking leg, but was still available for field goal duty.
  • Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was limited with a sprained ankle. So was defensive tackle Kevin Williams (knee) and wide receiver Jarius Wright (ankle).
  • Quarterback Christian Ponder (rib), center John Sullivan (hand) and tight end Rhett Ellison (knee) were full participants.
  • Lastly, as we discussed earlier today, Harrison Smith (turf toe) missed practice, and could head to injured reserve if he needs surgery.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was limited in practice on Thursday because of an injury to his left leg, but coach Leslie Frazier expects Walsh will be ready to play on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

"He was doing some kickoffs, and just felt a little bit of a twinge, so we just shut him down," Frazier said. "I think he'll be fine, based on what Eric Sugarman, our trainer, said. We just want to be smart."

The injury is to Walsh's plant leg, which could affect his mechanics (though obviously not as much as if it was his kicking leg). Frazier said the Vikings have a short list of kickers if necessary, but "we don't want to get to it."

In other Vikings practice news:
  • Running back Adrian Peterson was away from the team on Thursday because of a personal matter, but Frazier said Peterson would be back on Friday. While Peterson was away, though, he was apparently eating a turkey sandwich in Sioux Falls, S.D.
  • Wide receiver Joe Webb also missed practice because of an illness, but should be back on Friday.
  • Cornerback Chris Cook (groin) was a limited participant, but said he's "pretty confident I'll be ready for Sunday."
  • Safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring), who also missed the Vikings' previous game, returned to full participation.
  • Defensive tackle Kevin Williams and tight end Rhett Ellison were again limited with knee injuries.
  • Lastly, quarterback Christian Ponder was limited with a fractured rib, though Ponder said he split snaps with Matt Cassel and is healthy enough to play on Sunday. It seems likely he will be the backup this week, with Cassel starting and Josh Freeman inactive for his first game with the team.
Over the years, I've tended to side with statistical analysts who believe NFL coaches are too skittish about going for it on fourth down. More often than you might think, data built up from years of NFL play runs counter to conventional wisdom about the right time to punt, kick a field goal and/or "trust your defense."

Once such opportunity seemed to arise Sunday for the Minnesota Vikings late in their game at the Chicago Bears. Leading 27-24 with three minutes, 18 seconds remaining, the Vikings had a fourth-and-goal from the Bears' 4-yard line.

Coach Leslie Frazier faced a dilemma. He could kick the short field goal, take a six-point lead and leave his team vulnerable to a regulation loss if the Bears answered with a touchdown. Or he could go for a touchdown that would force the Bears to score twice to win.

In the worst-case scenario, if the touchdown attempt failed, the Bears would have gained possession pinned deep in their own territory with at least 60 yards to gain -- and only one timeout available -- for a chance at a game-tying field goal.

We all know what happened: Frazier chose Blair Walsh's 22-yard field goal. The Vikings took a 30-24 lead, but the Bears scored a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining for a 31-30 victory.

Watching the game live, I thought Frazier should have handed the ball to Adrian Peterson and tried to score a touchdown to seal the game. I figured the Vikings' chances to seal the game with the reigning MVP were at least as good, if not better, than the likelihood that their defense would stop Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in a fourth-quarter frenzy.

Years of hard data, however, mutes that sentiment. Frazier made the most informed choice, either intentionally or by chance. ESPN analytics specialist Alok Pattani graciously researched and passed along the details.

The ESPN win probability model contains data from all possible down-and-distance situations dating back to 2001. Over that period, NFL teams have scored touchdowns on 27 percent of their attempts on fourth-and-goal between the three- and five-yard lines. Perhaps the Vikings' chances were better than that with Peterson, but 12 years of precedent is hard to ignore.

Four yards takes more than an offensive line push and a lunge from the running back. You need either a well-blocked hole or an exceptional play by a running back who had averaged less than four yards per carry in the game.

As a result, statistical analysis gave the Vikings a better chance to win by converting the field goal (81.5 percent) and defending against a touchdown drive than going for it on fourth-and-goal (74 percent chance) and facing the likelihood of failure.

Frazier is as traditional of a game manager as there is, and I'm not sure he would have gone for it even if the ball at been at the 1-yard line, but this exercise emphasizes that knee-jerk reactions in the balance between convention and statistical analysis can work both ways.

Red zone issues hurt Vikings again

September, 15, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Three times on Sunday, in a game they badly needed to win, the Minnesota Vikings fashioned impressive, methodical scoring drives in the second half against the Chicago Bears. Two of those drives covered 13 plays, and they combined to take 15:47 off the clock, as the Vikings wore down the Bears' defense.

But all three of those drives ended with Blair Walsh field goals of less than 30 yards, meaning that when the Vikings had a chance to put the Bears down, they only were able to get them wobbling. And in the end, the 16-yard game-winning touchdown pass Jay Cutler threw to Martellus Bennett with 10 seconds left on Sunday wouldn't have mattered if the Vikings had take care of business on just one of those three drives.

[+] EnlargeBlair Walsh
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe Vikings settled for Blair Walsh field goals on each of three second-half red zone trips.
"That right there is what hurts the most," running back Adrian Peterson said. "Being in the red zone, right on the 4-yard line [on the Vikings' final drive] and having to settle for three."

Peterson's presence alone would suggest the Vikings shouldn't struggle in the red zone as much as they do. But even with the running back romping for 2,097 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns last season, the Vikings weren't terribly efficient at turning their drives into touchdowns.

They ranked 18th in the league last season with a 53.8 touchdown percentage in the red zone, and got just two touchdowns in five red zone trips last week against Detroit, settling for field goals three times there, too. For the season, the Vikings are now just 2-for-8 in the red zone, and not coincidentally, they're 0-2.

On their final drive, the Vikings had first-and-goal from the Bears' 6 after Christian Ponder connected with Greg Jennings for 22 yards. Peterson ran for two yards on first down, Ponder missed tight end Kyle Rudolph (his favorite red-zone target last season) on second down and Peterson was stopped on another run off-tackle on third down.

"It's easy to second-guess after the fact. But sometimes when you give the ball to Adrian on third-and-four, you don't feel like you need to pass," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That's one where, hindsight being 20/20, I'd do something differently."

The Vikings could have ended their first scoring drive of the second half with a touchdown, too, if Jarius Wright hadn't dropped Ponder's third-down pass in the end zone. That drive, which started with a 14-yard play-action pass to Cordarrelle Patterson from the Vikings' 9, might have been Ponder's best of the day.

But like the rest of the ones in the second half, it ended with a short Walsh field goal, which is why the one drive Cutler did finish in the second half -- his last one -- ultimately sent the Vikings home with a defeat.

"We do that today, we win," Peterson said. "Simple. Simple as that. We have to do a better job of being efficient in the red zone, getting [touchdowns] instead of [field goals]."
Reviewing Friday night's events at Ralph Wilson Stadium:

Buffalo Bills 20, Minnesota Vikings 16

Preseason record: 0-2

Of interest: The evening began with left tackle Matt Kalil getting beat for a sack by Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, and it didn't get much better, at least for a Vikings offense that again played without tailback Adrian Peterson. Coaches got quarterback Christian Ponder five series of work, but he took two sacks and was jumpy enough to complete only 5-of-12 passes for 53 yards. He led a 62-yard scoring drive, ending in a Blair Walsh's 36-yard field goal, but otherwise the Vikings gained a total of 20 yards on his other possessions. (Walsh earlier missed from 49 yards.) The Bills' rush was active, and center John Sullivan launched an early shotgun snap to scuttle one play, but all quarterbacks face adversity during the season. Ponder needed to react better and at times quicker Friday night. If you were hoping for an anxiety-relieving performance from him, this wasn't it. … Three of Ponder's completions went to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who also dropped an easy third-down pass. … The Vikings' defense played well against an equally underwhelming performance from Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb. Safety Jamarca Sanford intercepted a pass tipped by cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and linebacker Desmond Bishop showed up several times in extensive playing time -- albeit mostly with the third team. But he was also the closest defender on Brad Smith's 4-yard touchdown pass from EJ Manuel in the third quarter. … Punter Jeff Locke dropped three punts inside the 20, two of which were downed by special-teams hopeful Bobby Felder. … No. 3 quarterback McCleod Bethel-Thompson's 10-of-17 performance was, if nothing else, a nice showing to put on tape if the Vikings elect to keep two quarterbacks. … Receiver Jarius Wright suffered a concussion and did not play after halftime.

Up next: Aug. 25 at San Francisco 49ers.
Here is an interesting tidbit to keep in mind and impress your friends with: On their roster, the Minnesota Vikings have arguably the top kickoff men from both the NFL and college football last season.

We all know what Blair Walsh did in 2012, leading the league in average kickoff distance and ranking second in touchback percentage. As it turns out, rookie punter Jeff Locke -- a fifth-round draft choice from UCLA -- tallied an even higher percentage of touchbacks during his senior season. The chart provides the details.

Locke's value here is mostly from a contingency standpoint. There is no reason to adjust Walsh's routine and responsibilities after an All-Pro rookie season, and Locke said last month at minicamp that the Vikings hadn't worked him at all on kickoffs.

If anything, Locke offers the Vikings flexibility if Walsh were injured or otherwise unavailable. Most punters can handle kickoffs in an emergency situation, but presuming Locke could provide a more credible performance over a longer term, the Vikings could make a decision on Walsh's replacement based purely on potential field goal accuracy rather than a side concern about kickoffs.
Chris KluweTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesChris Kluwe ranked No. 31 last season in punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Here's the key question to consider after the Minnesota Vikings made it official Monday and released punter Chris Kluwe: Would Kluwe be an ex-Viking today if he had never campaigned for gay rights, Hall of Fame candidacies and other issues?

My informed guess: Probably.

So what impact did Kluwe's public advocacy play in the Vikings' decision? It moved the odds from "probably" to "certainty," erasing any equity his eight-career with the franchise might otherwise have built.

I know that explanation won't satisfy those of you who are convinced the Vikings targeted Kluwe because he took on a politically and socially sensitive issue. It's easy to see this move, contextualize it with the Baltimore Ravens' release of special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo, and suspect an agenda against NFL players who get involved in the gay rights issue.

I just don't think it's that simple. When viewed through the bigger picture of NFL business, and in the context of the Vikings' personnel approach over the past 16 months, you realize that Kluwe's off-field life was at best the final shove at the end of the plank.

The facts:

  • Kluwe finished 2012 ranked No. 31 among NFL punters in a statistic the Vikings value highly: punts downed inside the 20. Of Kluwe's 72 punts, 18 settled in what the league considers poor field position. By comparison, the Chicago Bears' Adam Podlesh nearly doubled Kluwe's total among his 81 punts. Podlesh finished with 34, while Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay had 30 in 70 punts.
  • Kluwe set a career high with a 39.9-yard net average, but that mark still ranked in the lower half (No. 18 overall) among punters.
  • In a relatively flat salary-cap era, the Vikings had an opportunity for significant savings. Because of a rarely needed NFL rule, Kluwe has no acceleration remaining on his six-year deal. Thus, all of his projected $1.45 million cap figure has been erased. His replacement, Jeff Locke, will count about a third of that total. In two years, in fact, the Vikings have shaved 23 years off the combined age of their punter and place-kicker and have lowered their cap commitment for those roles by two-thirds.

So in cold business terms, the Vikings had a 31-year-old punter who turned in a below-average performance last season and was entering the final year of his contract. They had several options, including keeping Kluwe for one more season, before deciding whether to re-sign him.

But if you've watched general manager Rick Spielman operate since January 2012, when he was promoted to his current role, you know he has systematically bid farewell to 30-plus-year-old players. The list ranges from guard Steve Hutchinson to linebacker E.J. Henderson to cornerback Antoine Winfield, and it has left only three players on the roster who are older than 30.

Two of them, defensive end Jared Allen (31) and defensive tackle Kevin Williams (32), are among the best players on the team. The third is long-snapper Cullen Loeffler.

Even the most youth-oriented NFL teams make age exceptions for specialists, as the Vikings apparently have for Loeffler. But that's where Kluwe's advocacy came in. The Vikings didn't resent his personal views, per se, but his pursuit of them at a time when his own performance was slipping served to eliminate any benefit of the doubt he might have held with decision-makers. If they were otherwise inclined to wait another year for this move, or had some hesitation about using a rookie punter, Kluwe's standing wasn't high enough to push them in the other direction. He implied a divided attention, whether or not that was actually the case, and that isn't a recipe for convincing football-focused bosses that his performance was likely to turn around.

Kluwe made a true and real impact on a national issue, one so significant that NBA player Jason Collins thanked him by name last week when announcing he is gay. Those efforts didn't cost Kluwe his job Monday, but they eliminated any chance for saving it.

This one you could see coming a mile away.

A year after drafting a place-kicker to replace their veteran incumbent, the Minnesota Vikings appear to have done the same at their other specialist position. They just made UCLA's Jeff Locke the first punter taken in the 2013 draft, at No. 155 overall in the fifth round, and that probably means the end of Chris Kluwe's eight-year run with the team.

Kluwe might be the best punter in Vikings history, but his inconsistent performance and diverted attention clearly gnawed at special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer last season. Priefer criticized Kluwe publicly for attaching a handwritten note on his game jersey promoting Ray Guy's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and then expressed frustration that Kluwe wouldn't have listened if he had tried to admonish him. When a coach admits a player won't listen to him, you can assume that something will eventually shake loose there.

General manager Rick Spielman refused to discuss Kluwe's future in an interview in March, and it became clear early this month that the team was working out most of the draft's top punters. Locke was one of several the Vikings worked out; he is a left-footed punter who averaged 44.2 yards per punt at UCLA and also led the nation in touchback percentage as a kickoff man.

Teams rarely use draft picks on kickers, so you can rest assured the Vikings didn't devote one Saturday just to provide Kluwe with competition. Last year, they released place-kicker Ryan Longwell days after rookie Blair Walsh's reassuring performance in the Vikings' post-draft rookie minicamp.

Kluwe is entering the final year of a deal that would pay him $1.45 million in 2013. He would not count against the Vikings' salary cap at all if he were cut because the maximum five-year pro-ration of his contract is over. If and when that happens, we'll have a more thoughtful discussion about the impact -- or lack thereof -- that Kluwe's public activism might have had on the decision.

Via Twitter, Kluwe responded with what I think is a reference to the movie "Dodgeball:" "That's a bold move Cotton. Lets see how it plays."

I wouldn't have expected anything less.

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