The great mistake

Let’s be honest about this: Kickers are appliances. Yes, we can like them. We can even vaguely love them in the same way that we love our snow blowers or big screen televisions. Adam Vinatieri will never have to buy a beer in Boston, not after so many crucial kicks, including two game-winners in the Super Bowl.

But let’s be honest about it: Everyone in New England expected Vinatieri to make those field goals, even the tough Oakland snow kicks. Sure, after a game-winning field goal, you will sometimes hear people call a kicker the game’s “hero.” But nobody believes that. A sports hero is someone who does something extraordinary to help win the game. Nobody sees kicking a field goal as extraordinary. If Vinatieri had missed, people would have been outraged beyond words.

And that’s the thing: People expect kickers always to make their field goals. They are appliances.

“We miss a chip-shot field goal — that’s life,” says Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in the aftermath of his team’s heartbreaking loss to Seattle on Sunday. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh had indeed missed a 27-yarder in the final seconds that would have won the game. When Zimmer was asked, essentially, if he blamed Walsh for the loss, he did not hesitate.

“It’s a chip-shot,” Zimmer says. “He’s got to make it.”

Coaches never do this to players. In the aftermath of even the worst losses, they stand behind their players because that’s the football code. You win as a team; you lose as a team. No one play wins or loses a football game. Fifty-three players stand as one. You know the football clichés as well as I do. A coach will not hesitate to sound ridiculous in the name of protecting one of his players, no matter how egregious the player’s mistake.

After Cincinnati’s crushing loss to Pittsburgh, coach Marvin Lewis was asked about Vontaze Burfict’s unnecessary and dangerous shot to the head, one that drew a 15-yard penalty at the worst moment and partially cost the Bengals the game. “He’s trying to go over and defend the play,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of balls out there, and calls went different ways. They deemed that to be a hit to the head, I guess.”

Yeah, guess so. And of the Jeremy Hill fumble that gave Pittsburgh the ball back, Lewis said: “Jeremy knows he fumbled the football. I don’t have to say anything to him. He’s disappointed as everyone else is.”

Yes, this is how it goes with football coaches. They never pile on a player because to do so would be to go against the core, “We’re all in this together” doctrine of football. Here was Mike Zimmer’s answer when asked if Adrian Peterson’s critical fumble against Seattle — which cost the Vikings the game every bit as much as Walsh’s missed field goal — happened because he was holding the ball loosely:

“I don’t know. I couldn’t see.”

Well, for those of us who did see it on replay — yeah, Peterson was holding the ball loosely, something he has done before. That’s why he had the ball stripped out of his hands. It was a sloppy and calamitous mistake for one of the best players in the NFL in the biggest game of his pro career. Zimmer didn’t know. He couldn’t see. These are the rules of engagement for professional football coaches.

The rules do not apply to kickers. This is because they are not players. They are appliances. Coaches don’t know how they work and don’t care to know. During practices, when their teammates are bashing into each other, kickers are generally off alone kicking footballs. When coaches talk about the toughness of their players, they are generally excluding kickers. When kickers are forced to make actual football plays — such as tackle someone on a kickoff or run a fake field goal — there is something surreal about it, as if someone from the stands has been chosen to play in the game.

And, in the end, kickers are just expected to work, like refrigerators or toasters or Honda Civics. Do you get excited when your Honda Civic starts? No. You might have a brief sensation of approval, just like when a kicker makes a field goal or an extra point. OK. That worked. Let’s go. Sometimes, a kicker makes a long field goal, and that’s a little bit more gratifying — like when your Honda Civic starts on a freezing night with nobody around.

But it’s still not like kickers are real people.

Blair Walsh made three field goals Sunday under the coldest conditions in Vikings history. He made one of those field goals even though the holder, Jeff Locke, had the laces turned toward Walsh, a universal holder no-no. Two of those field goals were at pretty tough distances when you consider the cold (43 and 47 yards). Walsh scored all nine of the Vikings’ points, in large part because the Vikings could not finish off their drives. Walsh also led the NFL in field goals, though nobody cared about that either. He was just the vehicle that secured those points, like the pneumatic tube that carries the money the bank sends you in the drive-thru window.

Then came the 27-yard field goal at the end of the Seahawks game, the chip shot, and there’s no question that a pro kicker should make a 27-yard field goal under any conditions. Then again, it’s also true that a runner should hold on to the football for dear life at the end of games. It is true that a defender should not lose his head and try to make a big play and vacate his zone. It is true that a quarterback should not throw the ball into triple coverage with the game on the line, and a cornerback should not stumble in coverage and a coach should not call a silly timeout because he misplayed the clock.

It is true, but it happens all the time. Nobody’s happy about it, but we understand. The game is hard. It moves fast. Mistakes are human. Teammates and coaches pride themselves on standing behind their comrades in tough times because that’s at the heart of winning football.

But kickers are not comrades. Kickers are appliances.

Walsh, in the end, took full responsibility for the miss. Of course, he did. He refused to allow Locke even a tiny bit of the blame though Locke had again pointed the laces right at him. He refused to make excuses about the weather. He refused to do anything except to say that he let his teammates down and that he will have to work harder than ever to make it up to them. “It is shameful,” he said.

It is not shameful. It is a mistake. I suppose there must be a machine out there that could make 27-yard field goals in zero degrees temperature with the laces pointed at them under the most intense pressure imaginable every single time. Coaches and fans would love to buy one of those machines. But for now, we’re all stuck with real people kicking those field goals. It might be nice if we remembered that.

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