Verbal spats on the football field are a common consequence of a sport requiring large and strong opponents to collide with each other.
Quite less common is a war of words surrounding a placekicker.
But that’s what happened Friday night at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks’ Blair Walsh twice answered the taunts of his former Minnesota Vikings teammates with a gesture often seen during a rush-hour traffic jam.
“I just made sure I let them know I didn’t want to be taunted,” Walsh said after the Hawks’ 20-13 victory. “I assumed it was playful. Mine was, too.
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“It wasn’t anything malicious, but I let them know you can’t taunt me like that.”
Walsh’s history with the Vikings could be described as complicated. Drafted out of the University of Georgia in 2012, the rookie earned first-team All-Pro recognition by converting all 10 of his field-goal attempts beyond 50 yards.
Walsh reputation for reliability continued through a 2015 regular season that found the Vikings home for a first-round playoff game against the Seahawks. With 26 seconds remaining in a slog distinguished by its inhumane weather conditions — the game-time temperature was minus-five degrees — Walsh faced a 27-yard chip shot that figured to turn the Vikes’ 10-9 deficit into a 12-10 victory.
The ball was hooked to the left, a blunder that managed to surpass Jim Marshall’s wrong-way touchdown in the Vikings Hall of Infamy.
Kicking, like putting in golf, is as much about the mental state of the competitor — confidence — as it is about actual physical skill. Walsh didn’t regain his groove last season, failing to convert four extra-point attempts through 10 games.
After his extra-point miss proved costly in a 26-20 loss to Washington, the Vikings cut their once unflappable kicker. The Seahawks signed the free agent during the offseason as replacement for Steven Hauschka, bedeviled by similar struggles with extra points.
Despite the humiliation of losing his job in the middle of November, relocating from Minnesota was in Walsh’s best interest. Vikings fans were disinclined to forgive and forget the 2015 playoff game, and so, apparently, were a few guys on the visiting sideline Friday night.
Upon his successful 52-yard field goal attempt early in the third quarter, Walsh jogged toward the Minnesota bench for an animated stare-down. Another 52-yard field goal in the third quarter preceded another stare-down, replete with easily interpreted sign language.
While Walsh suggested the exchanges were playful, there’s a feisty edge to him that appeals to head coach Pete Carroll.
“Blair had a good game, and almost had a huge game if he made that kick off the crossbar,” said Carroll, referring to Walsh’s missed 53-yard attempt in the second quarter. “The guys were giving him a hard time, and he was having fun with it. He’s a great competitor and we like his mentality.”
Carroll is counting on the Seahawks least imposing player — Walsh is listed at 5-feet-10 and 175 pounds, and the 5-10 height appears generous — to deliver during those three or four crunch-time kicks that can define the difference between a 13-win season, typically worth home-field advantage through the playoffs, and a 10-win season fraught with obstacles.
How valuable is an accurate kicker with long-range capability? This valuable: 65 Seattle players participated in the exhibition game on Friday. Of the 20 points the Seahawks scored, Walsh was responsible for eight.
Granted, there’s a long snap involved, as well as the placement off the snap, two nuances easier said than done. But almost always, it’s the kicker who’s responsible for the ball clearing the crossbar.
Walsh misfired on the most important kick he ever attempted, the equivalent of a two-foot tap-in for a birdie. Life goes on.
“It’s so far in the past, it’s never on my mind,” Walsh said of the 2015 playoff-game debacle “I’m happy where I am now, part of this team now.
“As soon as you walk in this building, you know why these guys have won so much. They love each other. They support each other. It’s still the NFL. It’s a tough road and you’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to produce. But when you’re in an environment like this, it brings out the best out of guys.”
As for the sideline incidents on Friday, Walsh offered a sheepish smile.
“I won’t think about it past tonight, I can tell you that,” he said. “My job is to be seen, and not heard.”