There was time, Chris Kluwe admitted, during the frantic sideline maneuvers of a typical NFL game for a brief, warm and fuzzy moment Sunday afternoon between the coach known as “Chilly” and the Vikings punter who has been treated that way by his boss, Brad Childress.
“Yes, he shook my hand after the first one. Even patted my butt, too,” Kluwe said, laughing, not long after the Vikings’ 12-10 victory over the Detroit Lions at the Metrodome. “He said, ‘Great job, way to put it down there.’ Yes, he was supportive. … No, we didn’t hug.”
It was a minimalist triumph for the Vikings overall, veering recklessly close to a moral defeat. But barely beating what generally is regarded as the worst franchise in the NFL gave Kluwe — with eight punts averaging 41.1 yards, and with neither he nor anyone else on the special-teams unit getting burned by a Lions return for points or even significant yards — a chance to step out of an intense and uncomfortable spotlight.
Unwanted spotlight shines on Kluwe
Childress had turned the klieg lights on his punter after Minnesota’s game at New Orleans last Monday, when the Vikings won 30-27 despite Saints return man Reggie Bush burning them for a touchdown and, later, for one scamper to great field position and another for a 64-yard TD — both after the coach had directed Kluwe to boot the ball out of bounds to avoid Bush. Childress vented about Kluwe in his postgame remarks that night and, two days later, had four punters audition in a most public way at the team’s Winter Park facility. It was a none-too-subtle reminder that, in a league with few guarantees, punters and kickers have fewer than most.
For six days, as Kluwe’s chats with reporters shifted from discussions of hang time to hung-out-to-dry time, he leaned privately on the $8.3 million, six-year extension he got last year, including a $1.7 million signing bonus. He drew confidence from his resume — 274 punts, 43.9 yards average, 88 inside the 20, no blocks. Mostly, though, Kluwe squirmed and waited for the attention to end.
“It was kind of exciting. I felt like a quarterback for a second,” he said after Sunday’s game, slinging a bag over his shoulder and nearly exiting the locker room before most of his teammates had shed their uniforms. “But hopefully I can slip back into the shadows, get back to doing my job every week and go from there.”
Kluwe admitted that the contract “makes you feel a bit more secure,” given how tenuous so many punters’ and kickers’ careers are. Detached from the rest of the squad already by their specialities, both in routine and emotionally, they might get only a few chances each game to make or break the team’s performance.
And even though their production comes off the insteps of their feet — subject to the intricacies of a proper long snap, the tactics of a coverage team or the wind, weather and crowd conditions — they typically are accorded little margin for error. Some coaches appear to change punters and kickers out of superstition, as frequently as they change underwear. One bad game is all it takes, sometimes, to make them think 31 other teams are better off in that department, with plenty of available replacements on the waiver wire or even walking the street.
It’s grossly unfair, of course. The Vikings were fortunate to escape Sunday with the shakiest of victories and a 3-3 record, profiting from borderline calls on an alleged Detroit fumble that kept points off the board in the fourth quarter and a pass-interference ruling that virtually teed up Ryan Longwell’s game-winning field goal at the end.
Longwell’s 38-yard attempt earlier in the quarter was blocked by Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, offering another special-teams scapegoat had Childress wanted one. And yet, you won’t see four unemployed head coaches showing up at Winter Park this week, auditioning for the right to decide between two-point conversions and old-fashioned points after (the Vikings coach passed up a chance at a 10-10 tie with 4:47 left in the third quarter).
“As far as I’m concerned, that was a great win,” said Childress, whose team trailed lowly Detroit for 32 minutes 53 seconds of Sunday’s game; in the Lions’ first four games combined, they held a lead for only 2:20. “I’m not going to give it back. A win’s a win’s a win’s a win.”
Job security tricky for coaches, too
The needle on Childress’ job security didn’t move much Sunday, which ought to make him a little more empathetic with players like Kluwe. Some of the longest-tenured Vikings ever, Fred Cox (210 games) and Greg Coleman (130), kicked for a living. Still, Kluwe, in his fourth season, already is pushing at the far end of the longevity scale. As first-string punters, Bobby Walden (1964-67) and Harry Newsome (1990-93) lasted four seasons and Mitch Berger had the job for the better part of six seasons (1996-2001). But Kyle Richardson, Eddie Johnson, Leo Araguz and Darren Bennett won, held and lost the job in rapid succession before Kluwe arrived in 2004. Then he took his turn in the tank (almost) last week.
“I could have done without it, to be real honest,” he said Sunday. “It’s never fun to be the center of attention like that. But it’s, again, something that comes with the job. [The New Orleans victory] was an emotional game. We had some words on the sideline. You get heated. It’s part of the game> You just have to let it go, not take it personally and put it behind you.”
That got easier at the end of the Vikings’ first possession against Detroit, when Kluwe booted the ball 55 yards, with teammate Charles Gordon downing it at the Lions’ 3-yard line. Less than five minutes later, Kluwe’s punt from the Detroit 39 hit at the 4-yard line but caromed into the end zone.
“Any time you have one that goes over 50 yards and bounces inside the 5, it’s hard not to feel pretty good about it,” Kluwe said of that first one, which got Childress’ attention — and acceptance. “Getting it out of the way was a relief, but I knew I could do it. … Obviously, we would have liked to have some of those touchbacks inside the 20, but all in all, it was a good day.”
The coach wasn’t exactly effusive afterward. Of Kluwe’s solid performance, Childress said: “That speaks something to how he was punting, and it speaks something to how the coverage guys were getting down there and making tackles.”
Getting taken for granted, though, is a good thing for a punter. Way, way better than the alternative.