A curse is the easiest thing to blame for your favorite team’s ineptitude, and the lamest. It’s no longer the 17th Century. We’re 1,000 miles from Salem, and Satan has much more devilish things on his agenda than messing with a placekicker. (It’s true. Read the papers, or your favorite news website.)
Usually a “curse” is nothing more sinister than a bunch of bad decisions, compounded by more bad decisions. That’s where we are, finishing a week of chaos and tumult from two Minnesota franchises known for it.
Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer barely needed 24 hours to fire rookie kicker Daniel Carlson for missing three field goals last Sunday, any one of which would have beaten the Packers in a game that ended in a 29-29 tie. And on the eve of Timberwolves training camp, All-Star Jimmy Butler reportedly demanded to be traded, exposing the much-rumored fissure between the veteran Butler and rising stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The Vikings drafted Carlson higher than any kicker in club history (fifth round, No. 167 overall) because Zimmer tired of watching incumbent Kai Forbath miss eight extra points last year. Forbath isn’t the first veteran kicker to slump, and coaches generally handle it two ways: Support the kicker publicly until he comes out of it, as the Packers did successfully with Mason Crosby in 2012, or go get a young guy and pretend there’s a competition. Zimmer already tried patience in 2016 with Blair Walsh, who struggled for months following his crushing playoff miss against Seattle. Zimmer finally cut him that November, after four consecutive losses wrecked a 5-0 start, and the 8-8 Vikings missed the playoffs.
Did Zimmer waive Carlson to avoid a repeat? Maybe. No one needs to remind Vikings fans that this team has never won a Super Bowl, hasn’t been to one in more than 40 years, and is desperate to get back. Last year was supposed to be The Year, fueled to a frenzy by the Minneapolis Miracle, and you know how that ended. The Vikings gambled big on quarterback Kirk Cousins to finally push through. There’s pressure to make it happen, and pressure forces hands.
It’s one thing to change kickers. That happens all the time across the league. It’s another thing to entrust the position to a kid who wasn’t ready for it. That’s a bigger miss than any of Carlson’s, and it falls on general manager Rick Spielman, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and Zimmer himself.
“Rick felt it was the best thing, and I agreed with him, to bring in a young kicker,” Priefer said Thursday at the vast new Vikings complex in Eagan. “(Carlson was) the best one, we felt, coming out of the college draft. He won the job, and then he just didn’t get the job done on Sunday.
“He’s a fine young man, he’s a fine kicker, he belongs in this league at some point, and he just wasn’t quite ready for that situation. So, unfortunately for him, unfortunately for us, we had to make a change. Hopefully we’re better off because of it, and we’ll kind of go from there.”
Sometimes it takes getting cut a few times for a kicker to find his bearings. Nick Lowery was let go 11 times by eight teams before hooking on with Kansas City for a long, successful career. Maybe that happens with Carlson. Meanwhile, veteran Dan Bailey becomes Zimmer’s fourth kicker in three years. (Green Bay, by the way, has had three since 1997: Ryan Longwell through 2005, Dave Rayner in 2006, and Crosby beginning in 2007. Go ahead and boo.)
“I haven’t met him yet,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said of Bailey. “I trust that he’s going to come in here and do everything possible to have success. He’s one of our guys. We’ve got to pull together for him now, so I love him.”
Funny thing about kickers: Accuracy has improved so much that a guy who hit three-quarters of his field goal attempts, as Bailey did last year for Dallas, is considered to have had a “bad” season. Forbath, by the way, made 84.2 percent (32 of 38). Bailey, the second most accurate kicker in NFL history, better be at least as good.
The Timberwolves saga, meanwhile, is a convoluted mess that may take weeks to sort out. Does anyone expect anything else from a franchise known for selfishness and incompetence?
A few things to keep in mind. Tom Thibodeau was the best coach available when Flip Saunders died in 2015. Thibodeau assumed Saunders’ basketball operations role as a condition to coming to Minnesota. His plan to surround Towns and Wiggins with veterans who knew how to win, including several he coached in Chicago, made sense. Wolves fans hailed Thibodeau for last summer’s trade bringing Butler from the Bulls, landing the transcendent star Saunders and David Kahn never could. The Timberwolves were finally on their way to relevancy and their first playoff berth since 2004.
Now Thibodeau has a problem that, if he can’t resolve it, may cost him his job. With Butler’s trade demand out there, his preferred destinations — the Knicks, Nets and Clippers — have no incentive to offer fair value back. Knicks president Steve Mills told reporters in New York he has no interest in dealing good players or draft choices for a pending free agent.
“We’re committed to following the plan and not just shifting, pivoting because we see something that we think is attractive and might fast-track something,” Mills said Thursday at a press conference. “I’ve seen that happen and go wrong too many times, and that’s not what we’re going to do. Our plan is not to use our draft picks as assets like that.”
Thibodeau’s best play? Holding on to Butler for now while convincing him to cut Towns and Wiggins some slack. But that’s not the only issue. A Twitter and Instagram war ensued among Wiggins, his brother Nick, and former NBA player Stephen Jackson. Oh, and players report for training camp Monday, which ought to be entertaining whether Butler shows up or not. They might need 15 locker rooms to separate the combatants.
Cursed? Hardly. Teams generally stumble for reasons that have nothing to do with the occult. Sometimes, they just stink.