EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Kai Forbath was planning to move into an apartment in New Orleans the week of the 2016 season opener, when a phone call from the Saints quickly turned his day upside down.
The players were off from practice, so Forbath had no doubt about why he’d been summoned to team headquarters five days before the first game.
Coach Sean Payton delivered the disappointing news that the Saints had decided to sign rookie Wil Lutz and release Forbath to make room.
“Coach Payton said he just had a gut feeling that he had to go with him,” Forbath said, “so they gave him a shot.”
Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who has been the holder for both of them, recalled Lutz making every kick in his tryout the day before the move was made.
“He came in and just killed his workout,” Morstead said, “and if Coach Payton gets a gut feeling on something, he’ll trust himself over what anybody thinks.”
Forbath had just returned from a weekend out of town to celebrate his birthday, after beating out Connor Barth for the job in training camp.
“It was kind of shocking, but you know it’s not the first time something shocking’s happened to me in this league,” Forbath said. “It’s a business, and everything happens for a reason.”
Lutz, who spent the 2016 preseason with Baltimore after coming out of college at Georgia State, has performed well enough to match Payton’s hunch.
He finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 and seventh in his second season. Lutz has missed his share, ranking 13th in the league this season in field goal accuracy (86.1 percent) and 19th as a rookie (82.4), but there he was last weekend knocking a 57-yard kick through the uprights late in the third quarter of the wild-card round playoff game.
“You’ve got to feel confident, and confidence comes from behavior demonstrated. Then you have to have that routine, and although it seems to focus around one swing, I think it’s that mentality that, man, you’re going to go out there and friggin’ put an arrow through them, you know?” Payton said. “Sometimes that breaks guys, but in his case, it’s definitely an asset.”
That field goal helped the Saints hold off Carolina’s late surge and hang on for a 31-26 victory that sent them to the divisional round to play at Minnesota on Sunday.
That’s where the 30-year-old Forbath has been since the middle of last season, when the Vikings cut Blair Walsh and turned to him to stabilize this critical specialty role that can determine whether or not a team reaches the Super Bowl.
Walsh, of course, hooked his last-second 27-yard try to the left two years ago in the subzero cold at the University of Minnesota’s stadium to let Seattle advance in the wild-card round with a 10-9 victory.
He wasn’t able to shake the shank the following season, when the Vikings signed Forbath for the final seven games.
If Vikings fans, at least the adults old enough to remember, wince at the memory of Walsh’s miss then they might start weeping when thinking about the wide left from 17 years earlier by Gary Anderson .
That kick, Anderson’s first miss of the entire season, helped keep the Vikings from advancing to the Super Bowl in an overtime NFC championship game loss to Atlanta.
Mike Zimmer, who like so many head coaches grow weary of unreliable kickers, was asked this week about his confidence level in Forbath.
“Good,” he said. “We’ve got the crystal ball on our side.”
Forbath made all 15 of his field-goal tries in 2016 and missed only one 3-pointer over the first nine games of 2017, until tailing off a bit down the stretch. He went 3 for 3 at Green Bay on a Dec. 23 night game with single-digit temperatures to help get back on track.
Forbath has missed eight extra points in 23 games for the Vikings, and his touchback rate (44 of 88, 50 percent) lagged behind Lutz (54 of 98, 61.7 percent), but he won’t have to carry the burden of that career-defining wide left into the most important game of his life that Walsh would have.
“You can’t try to put extra pressure on it,” said Forbath, the Lou Groza Award winner at UCLA for the nation’s best place kicker as a junior in 2009. “That’s when bad things happen.”
For Forbath, the Vikings are his favorite team of all those he’s kicked for. He only appeared in 10 regular-season games for the Saints, so he dismissed the notion of a point to prove in this game even if Lutz didn’t necessarily buy that.
“I think he kind of uses it as an edge. All of us have that edge we kind of keep on our shoulder, and I think that’s his thing,” Lutz said. “He’s done really well this year for those guys.”