“From 27 yards, left hash… snap good, spot down, Walsh’s kick is up… and it is… no good he missed it! Are you kidding me? The season can’t end like that. He missed it left. And the Seattle Seahawks are off to Charlotte. Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal, and the Minnesota Vikings are going to lose 10-9.” (Paul Allen, KFAN Radio 100.3 FM)
Most Vikings fans (myself included) would rather forget what happened against the Seahawks on wildcard weekend of the 2015-16 season. However, attempting to forget that it occurred leads to fans forgetting that the season leading up to it was a major coming-out party for a brand new generation of Vikings football. As painful as the game may be, it’s valuable to view it as a new beginning.
How Did We Get Here?
The 2015 regular season was a rebirth for a franchise that hadn’t seen the postseason (or a winning record) in three years and serious contention for even longer. That season, the Vikings captured the NFC North title for the first time since 2009, beating the rival Green Bay Packers in a close game, 20-13. Minnesota would end the season with an 11-5 record, quite the accomplishment for hard-nosed second-year head coach Mike Zimmer. Going into the playoffs, the Vikings were slated to face the sixth-seeded Seahawks, who ended their regular season winning six of the final seven games. These games were won in high scoring fashion, with Seattle’s lowest score in that seven game streak being 17, and no others being under 30 points. These points were put up often by the red-hot connection between 4,000-yard passer Russel Wilson and 1,000-yard receiver Doug Baldwin, with Baldwin hauling in 14 touchdowns. The Vikings were five point underdogs heading into this game, with Odds Shark predicting a 27-18 win for the Seahawks.
Field of Ice, Wicked Winds
The narrative of an action-packed, high-scoring wildcard game died as soon as the stadium staff arrived the morning of January 10, 2016. It was cold. And not “Yay, now I get to wear my favorite sweater!” cold. Kickoff was marked at -6 degrees Fahrenheit, -25 F with windchill. Obviously, this changed both teams’ strategy and hindered the amount of big plays that could even be feasibly attempted. This was shown in Seahawks’ first possession wherein they went three-and-out, then punter Jon Ryan mishandled the low snap and couldn’t get a punt off, allowing the Vikings a drive from the Seattle 29-yard line. Minnesota would settle for a field goal, and that would end up being all of the scoring for the first half. Both squads combined for 185 yards in the first two periods, the lowest in a playoff game since 2005.
Seattle started the second half with a solid drive, ending with a fourth-down conversion attempt that got picked off by Trae Waynes. That allowed the Vikings to kick another Blair Walsh field goal. The Seahawks immediately go 3-and-out, the Vikings get it back and kick a third Walsh field goal. Minnesota takes a 9-0 lead into the 4th, and sadly, that’s exactly where the wheels start to fall off for the purple and gold. On the first possession of the final period, Wilson connected with Baldwin for the first touchdown of the game, 9-7. This is, arguably, the exact moment Vikings fans start freaking out because this is going down to the wire.
If there’s anything that would be Minnesota sports’ kryptonite, it would be close, back-and-forth games. Two plays into the Viking’s drive after the touchdown, Kam Chancellor (oh no) forces an Adrian Peterson fumble (oh no), which gets recovered at the Minnesota 40-yard line (OH NO). Steven Hauschka boots a 46-yarder to put the Seahawks up 10-9 with 8:04 left in the game. After trading punts, the Vikings had the ball at their own 39-yard line with 1:42 left.
Minnesota drives all the way down to the Seattle 9-yard line with 26 seconds left. They trot out the field goal unit. Blair Walsh has been the only reason that this team is competitive today. Terrible for him, as the snapper chucks the ball into the holder’s hands. That doesn’t matter now.
Holder catches the ball, sets it down, laces are in. A kicker’s death sentence, but no one notices until the NBC play-by-play crew replays the video afterwards. After the game, Walsh would say that his mechanics broke down during the attempt. “I don’t know why,” he stated.
Blair Walsh plants, and begins to drive his foot towards the ball. Was it the cold? It was historically cold, that could’ve had an effect. Was it the wind? Maybe, it wasn’t a specifically windy day, but in an outdoor stadium anything could affect it. The pressure? Was he tired from the previous kicks? There’s no way that now, game on the line, his mechanics would just fail. That would be cruel. So, so cruel.
Walsh makes contact with the ball. This kick would not only define his NFL career, but would begin the downward spiral that would eventually leave him as a free agent. Maybe he can jump-start his career again in the XFL or USFL. Maybe even the CFL. That doesn’t matter in this moment.
Wide left. It’s wide left. Richard Sherman, an All-Pro cornerback for the Seahawks, falls to his knees with his head on his hands. He can’t believe it. Neither can Mike Zimmer, the aforementioned hard-nosed Minnesota head coach. Michael Bennet, a future Pro-Bowler for Seattle, gets on one knee and seems to pray. Other Seahawks players are running around, but no one notices Walsh, who silently slips away to the locker room. Football fans and media alike would relentlessly dogpile the kicker for weeks, no doubt further crushing his confidence. If he somehow sees this, I hope you’re doing good now Blair. I pray you’re living your life.
In Another World, Maybe You’re There
The Seahawks would nearly pull off a comeback for the ages the following week against the Carolina Panthers, but would ultimately fall to them 31-24. Those Panthers would go on to curbstomp the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship 49-15, then barf up quite the ham-fisted showing in Super Bowl 50, falling to the “Sheriff’s Last Ride” Denver Broncos 24-10. So, would the 2015 Minnesota Vikings be able to put together a better run than the Seattle Seahawks? That depends on which side of me you ask. The total lifer fan would say we plow straight to the Super Bowl and give Peyton Manning the worst retirement gift in NFL history. If I’m being fully honest? We don’t go further than Seattle, maybe we cobble together an even worse showing than they did. The Seahawks had the 1st and 2nd ranked defense in terms of points allowed and yards allowed respectively. In those same categories, Minnesota was 5th and 13th. Seeing how big of a fit MVP Cam Newton gave Seattle, I don’t like our odds in that situation. But, for a 12-year-old me, I would’ve done anything to keep watching that team.
The Aftershocks of a Fabulous Flameout
This team, whether many people saw at the time, had a massive impact and a bright future ahead. In a more personal experience, the 2015-16 season is the first time I really paid attention to the Vikings, watched every game, all of that. I felt like I was really a part of something, the draw of the tension caught me, and I know I’m not the only person who got hooked on that. Outside of the fan perspective, the 2015 draft laid the foundation of what players would represent Minnesota Vikings football for years to come. We drafted Eric Kendricks in the second, Danielle Hunter in the third, and a little-known Maryland receiver in the fifth round who would lead the 15-16 squad in yards named Stefon Diggs. The 2015-16 Minnesota Vikings may have blown it in the most spectacular, Vikings-esque way possible, but they pulled fans for years to come, started the rise of the forthcoming years, and made for an interesting and meaningful retrospective.