The Vikings Have A Chance To Redeem Themselves After the Daniel Carlson Saga

As training camp wrapped up in late August 2018, Daniel Carlson said he was ready for the pressure of kicking in regular-season games. The Minnesota Vikings took him in the fifth round that year, making him the highest-drafted kicker in franchise history. They were coming off a run to the NFC Championship and had Super Bowl expectations. Carlson would have to convert high-pressure field goals for a franchise with a history of missing kicks.

“Definitely embrace,” Carlson said when a reporter asked about the pressure. “I think you want to be on a winning team. I came into a situation where, with what they did last season, I’m just going to take that and run with it. Do my job one day at a time and hopefully be a part of that success. As a kicker, I hope I get lots of extra points. When we get some big field goals, I’ll be ready.”

The Vikings didn’t hand Carlson the job. They made him battle incumbent Kai Forbath until three weeks before their September 9 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Minnesota signed Forbath in the middle of the 2016 season to replace Blair Walsh, and Forbath had made 50 of 57 field goals. However, he missed eight extra points in one-and-a-half seasons. The Vikings felt Carlson gave them a better opportunity to win close games.

“You make your decision,” Zimmer said, “and live with it.”

Zimmer lived with his decision for two games. Carlson made a field goal and three extra points against San Francisco. But he missed three field goals in Minnesota’s 29-29 tie with the Green Bay Packers, including a 35-yard game-winner in overtime. The Vikings waived Carlson 24 hours later. The Oakland Raiders signed him in late October, and he’s been with them for the last six years.

Last season, Alabama’s Will Reichard passed Carlson to become the SEC’s leading scorer. The record itself only means so much. Kickers score more points than any other position, and points scored are often a product of opportunity. Reichard played five years at Alabama, giving him ample opportunity to score. However, he converted 84% of his kicks in college and 99.3% of his extra points. He was 14/14 as a sophomore in 2020.

“The resumé speaks for itself. Being a career (84%) says a lot about who this guy is and really how consistent he has been throughout his years,” said Vikings special teams coach Matt Daniels. “He’s truly shown how consistent he can truly be, and he’s a guy that you can count on in the biggest moments.”

Those are famous last words in Minnesota, but Daniels has done his best to change the special teams culture. He has nicknames for each player, gives them a plaque describing the virtues of being on special teams, and made special teams hats that people throughout the building wear. The Vikings have come a long way from the Zimmer days when the gruff head coach would wear on kickers.

“You know what? Guys are supposed to do their jobs,” Zimmer said in response to Carlson’s three missed kicks at Lambeau. “Maybe we should have thrown the ball into the end zone a couple of times. I believed that [Carlson] was going to make it. They said, ‘Put it in the middle of the field.’ We put it smack dead in the middle of the field, and every day in practice, he drills them. That’s what’s disappointing.”

Nothing Zimmer said about Carlson was incorrect. He just constantly added pressure on a player already in a crucible. Dan Bailey, Walsh, and Forbath also reacted negatively to Zimmer’s approach. Daniels holds his players to a high standard but avoids putting them in a poor headspace, and he already has given Reichart a vote of confidence. Daniels believes Reichart will deliver in the clutch because of his experience at Alabama.

“The biggest thing is how he performed in pressure situations, game-winning kicks,” said Daniels. “It’s not [just] the National Championship game, but the semifinal game at the Rose Bowl versus Michigan. He had a 50-yarder and a 52-yarder, and those were probably two of the biggest kicks really in the entire playoff series.”

Reichart could have come out of the draft a year earlier, but he stayed at Alabama because he needed to work on converting long field goals at a higher rate. Daniels says Reichart strikes the ball consistently and looks comfortable from 50-plus-yards out. Reichart also got an additional year of kicking under pressure before playing professionally. He agrees with Daniels that the Rose Bowl was a defining moment in his collegiate career.

“Some of my favorite kicks in my career were the Rose Bowl this year,” said Reichart. “I always feel like, [as] a kicker, it’s super important to be able to kick well in big-time pressure situations. Playing at Alabama, you have so many opportunities to do that. Whether it’s top-15 matchups, I mean pretty much almost every week we’re playing in big-time games.”

It’s hard to know whether Reichart’s success in college will translate to the pros. Unlike other positions where the NFL’s size and speed affect young players, Reichart must mostly show he can convert meaningful kicks throughout the season. The big question is how a kicker will handle pressure in the NFL compared to in college. Given Minnesota’s franchise history, any Vikings kicker faces scrutiny. But Alabama kickers also must perform in the spotlight.

Carlson likely won his camp battle with Forbath because of his draft status, and Zimmer never made things easy on kickers. Perhaps Carlson could have used more coaching before the season started. Maybe he would have been the kicker he became with the Raiders had he been in a better situation in Minnesota. The Vikings will expect Reichart to win the job because of where they selected him. He will face pressure immediately. However, it will mostly come from the people in the stands and watching at home, not the coaching staff invested in developing him.

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