Everything’s Better When They Fail: Blair Walsh and Other “Chokes”

The worst entry in the recently assembled canon of “Blair Walsh Is a Choker”-style hit-pieces can be found on USA Today’s “FTW” website, in which Blair Walsh’s missed 27-yard field goal at the end of last week’s NFC Wild Card game is rated as the “third worst choke” in NFL history.  If you’re curious, Gary Anderson’s miss in the 1998 playoffs is number one, that insane Cowboys 19-yard dumpster fire from 2006 is number two.

After Walsh, at number four, the miss that has framed all other misses thereafter–Scott Norwood.

Scott Norwood missed a 48-yard field goal in an era where 48-yard field goals were not at all certainties. Gary Anderson’s miss left the the Vikings up seven with two minutes left in the game.  And Blair Walsh’s miss meant he was 3-for-4 on a day that was spectacularly difficult for kickers, on a day when Teddy Bridgewater went 17-24 for 146 yards, on a day when Adrian Peterson had 23 carries for a total of 45 yards, and also lost a fumble so ill-timed that it improved Seattle’s win expectancy by 17 percent, on a day when the Vikings netted 183 yards of total offense.  

On a day when, as it turns out, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Blair Walsh was the best player on the field.

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It’s important to know that we only know so much about kicking metrics, but also that we know more than we used to.  Thanks in large part to Benjamin Morris, we know that kickers have improved dramatically in the last ten years, we know that kickers (like most people) perform worse in ‘high-leverage situations”, we know kickers are affected by their misses, and we even know that kickers are improving at such a fast rate that “half the improvement in scoring in the past 50-plus years of NFL history has come solely from field-goal kickers kicking more accurately.”

Here’s a another thing we know, thanks to Brian Burke: weather (broadly) and temperature (specifically) are extraordinary success modifiers when it comes to kicking field goals. Per Burke, each 30-degree decrease in temperature from “warm extreme” (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit) has the equivalent effect of moving a given field goal attempt back by about five yards, and as such, per Walsh’s final kick was actually comparable to a 37-yard field goal attempt under normal conditions.

Two takeaways: First, the “automatic chip shot” that Walsh missed was slightly less than automatic at zero degrees Fahrenheit — it was a little more like an 82-percent chip shot than a 99-percent chip shot.

And despite recorded sub-zero temperatures throughout the game, Walsh hit from 22 yards in the first quarter (that’s another roughly 80-percent kick), and then from 43 yards and 47 yards in the third quarter, both of which were, at best, 50 percent kicks.  

In a playoff game where no one on either team was able to score points, where two mediocre offenses were performing significantly below average, Blair Walsh hit the equivalent of a 53-yard field goal and a 57-yard field goal to hand his teammates a nine-point lead with 15 minutes left in the game.

And when he hit that third field goal the Minnesota Vikings–all 53 of them–had an 86% chance of winning the game.

Which is also to say: in the fourth quarter of the NFC Wild Card Game, the Minnesota Vikings had a better chance of winning than Blair Walsh had of making any one of his four field goal attempts that day.

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It’s hard to argue that Blair Walsh was not the most valuable offensive player for the Vikings last Sunday, and insofar as we believe the Vikings “choked,” it’s hard not to wonder where the “choke” actually occurred.  Was it the entire Vikings secondary on that (basically insane) 35-yard completion to Tyler Lockett?  Peterson’s fumble?  Soft coverage by Josh Robinson that contributed to the Doug Baldwin touchdown?  Or thousands upon thousands of systemic mistakes–mistakes by linemen, assistant coaches, etc.–each in successively higher leverage situations, each acted upon and driven by the accumulation of the thousand mistakes preceding them, each in their own way important iterations of “choking,” each leading to a situation wherein an unusually successful placekicker was given an opportunity to regress toward something like a mean?

It’s almost impossible to know, of course.  And In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

In the end what we care most about in sports is not “win probabilities” and “situational leverage,” it’s narrative sequencing.  In actuality, it doesn’t really matter when the Vikings scored or didn’t, in actuality it doesn’t really matter if Blair Walsh had missed that kick in the fourth quarter as opposed to the first, but there’s no narrative without the sequencing, and ultimately the game is a lot less interesting if the story is that a kicker went 3-for-4 in a game where the Vikings couldn’t score a touchdown. 

Also: it’s even less interesting when you find out that, since 1970, teams who don’t score touchdowns have lost games 91% of the time.

Insofar as “clutch” is a thing, insofar as “choking” is a thing, it’s probably the case that we’re basically just interested in observing how difficult it is for certain human beings to remain relatively “normal” in extraordinary situations. We want to know why most of us are unable to be even a little bit normal when we’re called upon to “do.” Blair Walsh didn’t choke, and Scott Norwood didn’t either, but strangely, I think we wanted them to have choked.  

And I think we probably all feel–I know I do–that the more chokes there are in sports, the better.  Somehow life is a little better when we know that, when it mattered most, Chris Webber forgot how to count to five, and Mitch Williams couldn’t throw strikes, and Alabama couldn’t tackle, and that in some dark apartment Steve Bartman will live out the rest of his days wondering why–just that once, as the television cameras tracked the ball coming toward him, as the hope of an entire city strained against a history of failure–he was unable, in that moment, to just do nothing.

Given the size of our lives, given the few things we are able to do and the many, many things we fail at, it’s strangely wonderful to watch those failures that are most public, most vibrant, most enthralling, most emblematic.  They may not be particularly truthful; in Walsh’s cases, there was only a 16 percent chance he would hit all four of those kicks. But they are incredibly reassuring.  

It teaches us that there are no superheroes, that we didn’t miss out on a better life.  That all of us, no matter how we live, no matter how capable we are of grace and generosity, all of us can be totalized and reduced to the sum total of our failures.  

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Mike Simpson is a sportswriter from Lancaster, PA. You should follow him on Twitter.