Blair Walsh is human, so let's treat him that way

MINNEAPOLIS -- There will be a time for historical perspective. Lord knows this franchise can squeeze one more self-inflicted loss into its well-worn lore.

On this night, however, I'm finding it difficult to look past the scene in the Minnesota Vikings' locker room minutes after their 10-9 wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Place-kicker Blair Walsh, who missed a 27-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game, was sobbing.

He sat in his locker, still wearing the long underwear and shirt that helped keep him warm on a frigid day at TCF Bank Stadium. This was no silent cry. His face was contorted in anguish. His shoulders shuddered. He gasped for air each time a player, coach or support staffer walked over to console him.

This went on for 15 minutes, long after Walsh had taken full blame for the miss and exonerated his holder for setting the ball with the laces in. Finally, Walsh walked slowly to the shower. He emerged 10 minutes later, dressed, swiped through phone messages -- for his sake, hopefully he avoided Twitter -- and departed.

As fans torched Walsh on social media, and his own coach offered absolutely no public sympathy, it seemed appropriate to capture this moment. The players who make devastating mistakes are human. Despite the millions of dollars they will earn regardless, a few of them are genuinely crushed when they fail. Blair Walsh is one of them.

"He's going to take it very hard," linebacker Chad Greenway said from the other side of the locker room.

Walsh made an NFL-high 34 field goals this season, missing only five attempts. Before lining up Sunday afternoon with 22 seconds left, he had converted 33 of 34 kicks inside of 30 yards in his career. And this season, NFL place-kickers had made 189 of 191 kicks from 27 yards or shorter, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In other words, 99 times out of 100, Walsh would make the kick and the Vikings would advance to the divisional round.

"We were already talking about what [the Seahawks] might try to do with the last 20 seconds," safety Harrison Smith said. "How many timeouts they had. That we should try to tackle them inbounds. It's tough. No one saw us losing."

Walsh pulled the kick left so severely that it wouldn't have been good from 20 yards. He said he wasn't certain what went wrong from a technical standpoint -- other than not "staying long enough into the kick" -- and refused to blame a high(er) snap from Kevin McDermott or an unusual hold from Jeff Locke.

"I worked real hard to get myself to a place where I was very, very consistent for this team this year," Walsh said. "And in the moment they needed me the most this year, I wasn't. That stings. I'll be working hard to erase that from my career. But it'll take awhile.

"The whole thing is on me and I accept that. It's shameful. I've got to do better."

It is not shameful, of course. It was human. There no doubt will be plenty of grumbling from football Neanderthals about kickers, from people who expect perfection in kicking but overlook errors by position players. In what was not the finest public moment of his career, coach Mike Zimmer snapped: "The snap was maybe a little high, but it's a chip shot. He's got to make it."

It isn't fashionable to make excuses for rare mistakes, but there were more than a few extenuating circumstances here. If Walsh wasn't going to mention them, Locke was willing to.

First, temperatures remained below zero throughout the game.

"Essentially," Locke said, "it just makes it so you have such a smaller margin of error. The ball is not going to compress. It's like hitting a rock. It's got to be perfect."

Second, Locke wasn't able to spin the ball so that the laces faced away from Walsh. Walsh said Locke "did his job well and has done his job well all year." But Locke made it clear he considered it a crucial failure.

"Having the laces out is going to give you better contact," he said. "It's such an exact thing to put the millimeter of your foot on the millimeter of leather that you want, and having a lace mess with that contact, we're not helping him at all. It makes it so much more difficult. ... Laces back is the worst spot to have."

Typically, if Locke catches the snap with the laces back, he spins them forward. He wasn't sure why he didn't on this occasion, or earlier in the game on one of the three field goals Walsh did convert.

"I caught it and the laces were straight back," Locke said. "I don't know if it was me not feeling comfortable enough to spin it with the slick ball, but I've got to at least get the laces out of his eyes."

Walsh was still wiping away tears as Locke spoke. It was contagious. Eyes welled up all around him. This was pain. It mattered. And it was a reminder that, in an era when cynicism about professional sports has hit new heights, some people still do truly care. Remember that as you relive Blair Walsh's very public mistake for the next eight months.