EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Chris Kluwe still has his day job. He just hasn’t been doing it as well as he and the Vikings would like.
Minnesota’s outspoken punter has a gross average of 43.8 yards per attempt this season. That ranks only 24th in the NFL among those with enough tries to qualify for the leaders, putting him on the edge of the bottom quarter of a hyper-competitive league where the difference between losing and winning is often measured in inches.
The eighth-year veteran even got booed by the home crowd in his last game, when a 20-yard shank went out of bounds following a three-and-out by the offense to give Tampa Bay the ball at its 42 in the first quarter and set up a field goal.
Because of the increasing profile Kluwe has kept off the field with his activism on behalf of gay marriage rights, suggestions have come from frustrated or skeptical fans that he’s not focused enough on his punting. Kluwe did his best this week to take that theory like it was a ball snapped to him on fourth-and-long and boot it down the field inside the 5-yard line.
“I’d be more worried about someone who spent 24 hours a day thinking about solely one subject. It’s not a sign of great mental health,” Kluwe said. “When I’m here at the facility, football is the only thing I’m focusing on. That’s what I’m here for. And when I’m away from the football facility, I have a life. I do other things.”
Minnesota has a constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Kluwe, a straight, married father, has become one of the loudest voices of the “vote no” campaign. He has written countless essays posted on all kinds of websites and conducted television interviews with seemingly every network in the nation about his stance.
Kluwe already had a higher profile than most punters because of his quirky nature, past criticism on Twitter toward authorities like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and his role as the bassist in a local alternative rock band called Tripping Icarus. Given the wide coverage the marriage amendment debate has received around the state, the Vikings’ punter has gotten a lot of attention for speaking up.
The team brought in a handful of free-agent punters this week for tryouts, part of the normal process every team goes through to have updated scouting reports on prospects available in case they’re needed. Their presence at Winter Park didn’t necessarily signify growing concern about Kluwe’s performance, but a reminder that players in this league can be cut at any time.
“It’s part of the job. If the team doesn’t think you are performing up to standard then they’ll bring someone else in and do what they need to do,” Kluwe said. “I’m going to approach it the same way: go out and try to have the best game I can. Hopefully I do.”
The Vikings play at Seattle on Sunday. There’s no indication they’re actually considering making a punting change.
“Chris is a pro. He’ll figure this out,” coach Leslie Frazier said.
Gross average isn’t always the best way to gauge punters, since teams need them to pin kicks near the goal line sometimes rather than send them as far as possible. Kluwe, though, has only ranked below 15th in the NFL in gross average once in his previous seven years. He was 25th with a 42.3-yard average in 2006.
Last season, he was 13th at 45.7. In 2008, when coach Brad Childress angrily threatened to cut him after he didn’t kick two punts out of bounds that Reggie Bush returned for touchdowns in a game in New Orleans, Kluwe was fourth in the league at 47.6.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has noticed Kluwe rushing his kicks recently and failing to drop the ball consistently in the right place at the right rate. Those slight mechanical adjustments can have a big impact.
“He’s got to come out of his funk a little bit. He hurt us the other night. He knows it,” Priefer said, adding: “I know he’ll come back from that. He’s going to have a great week this week.”
Priefer, like Frazier, expressed no concern about Kluwe’s commitment to his primary occupation.
“That’s a good question, but the only thing I’ve focused on this week is how we’re going to beat Seattle,” Priefer said. “The other stuff? I don’t care.”
NOTES: WR Percy Harvin missed practice Thursday because of what Frazier called a personal matter. The coach said Harvin should be back Friday and able to play Sunday. ... TE John Carlson still hasn’t been cleared to practice after his concussion. ... RB Adrian Peterson was disappointed his beloved Oklahoma lost last week to Notre Dame, which counts no less than five former players on the Vikings roster. “Rough week for me and my pockets,” Peterson said.