Daniel Carlson had to stumble with Vikings to thrive with Raiders

Ninkovich, Cruz disagree on Raiders-Vikings (0:38)

Victor Cruz is confident in the Vikings winning at home, but Rob Ninkovich isn't sold and goes with the Raiders. (0:38)

EAGAN, Minn. -- Just more than 365 days stand between Daniel Carlson and the lowest moment of his kicking career.

After a 29-29 tie at Green Bay, where the then-rookie missed three field goals, two of which came in overtime -- including a 35-yarder as time expired -- Carlson was at rock bottom. The technical errors in his kicking were apparent and he knew it. Upon returning to Minneapolis that night after a phone call with his agent, it became clear that Carlson's time with the Minnesota Vikings would be short-lived.

Less than 24 hours later, the Vikings released their 2018 fifth-round pick just two games into the season.

Coach Mike Zimmer delivered a strong message. For a franchise that had its share of heartbreak with kicking blunders, Zimmer didn’t want another to play a role in derailing the season.

Carlson later joined the Oakland Raiders during the 2018 season and set the franchise record for single-season field goal percentage (94.1). Since joining the Raiders he has made 18 of 19 field goal attempts and all 22 point-after tries.

A year later, Zimmer has some remorse over the way things played out.

"Honestly, I’m happy for him," Zimmer said. "I mean, do I have regrets? I like our kicker who we have now (Dan Bailey), but did I second-guess it? Sure. He’s done great there, and I think he’s a very, very talented kid. I wish him well, just not this week. But no, I’m happy for him, and in retrospect, I guess, yeah, I’ve thought about it many times."

As Carlson returns to Minnesota on Sunday to face his former team, the feelings of disappointment and public humiliation from the way his NFL career started have long faded. He isn’t pursuing some big vendetta against the Vikings, nor does he look at this as a revenge game.

He doesn't want to relive what happened those first two games as a rookie, going 1-for-4 on field goals and losing his job. But in a way, his Minnesota tenure might have been the best thing ever to happen to his career.

The Vikings pursued the best available option on the free-agent market as soon as Carlson was released on Sept. 18, 2018. They brought in the veteran Bailey, who ranked as the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history at the time. But he went through his own share of ups and downs in Minnesota last season.

After the initial shock of being cut wore off, Carlson faced the sobering reality that something wasn’t right with his mechanics. This wasn’t new information, either. Carlson had technical adjustments he meant to fix but never had the time between his senior season at Auburn, participating in the Senior Bowl, his pro day, and the run up to the draft. There didn’t appear to be enough time to fix it in Minnesota, either.

"At the time it was going to be too scary to tweak because I was in preseason games still competing against a veteran kicker (Kai Forbath)," Carlson told ESPN. “I didn’t want to start tweaking things and kicking bad and lose the job in the preseason. It’s a difficult situation. You’re always competing and you’re always trying to keep your job so there’s very rarely a time that you can step back and work on these drills where you might not be kicking your best for up to two weeks until you get adjusted to that new technique."

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Carlson is big for a kicker. His body moves differently than most kickers in the NFL because he has a longer lever (his leg), which takes more energy to wind through initially but gives him an advantage in creating some distance with his lift.

"To simplify it, I was too far away from the ball from where I was starting," Carlson told ESPN. "If you took a measuring tape, I was probably somewhere between 140 inches and 144 inches consistently. Those steps going to the ball were going to be a little longer. Even during my senior year of college, I knew it was long.

"It’s one of those things where if you start messing with it, there are going to be some growing pains where you kicked at that depth for a million kicks, and if you suddenly switch to a different distance ... I scooted it up to 120 inches. More NFL kickers are kicking at that distance. But I knew it was going to take my body a while to get used to."

Faced with endless amounts of free time following his release, Carlson jumped right back in to begin the process of breaking old habits and building new muscle memory. He and his wife made the trek down to Ames, Iowa, so Carlson could work with renowned kicking specialist Jamie Kohl, whose camps and clinics Carlson had participated in since high school.

For five weeks, Carlson was without a job, scouring high schools in the Twin Cities for a field to kick on Sundays so he wouldn’t have to watch NFL games from his couch. It wasn’t that teams weren’t calling. The Raiders actually reached out to schedule a workout with him the week he got cut, but he, agent Mike McCartney and Kohl determined he wasn’t ready to dive back in.

There was a learning curve for Carlson, creating new technique and making sure his delivery was repeatable with each kick. He also had to restore his confidence.

The Raiders reached back out four weeks after their initial call. By Week 8, Carlson was ready for his fresh start, the painstaking wait having served as more than a just a chance for him to perfect his technique.

"When you don’t perform the way you’re capable or the way that you’re used to kicking, which is what happened, he hit rock bottom," Luke Radke, the national lead coach and evaluator for Kohl’s Professional Camps said. "Sometimes that’s a good thing. For him, that really helped re-establish and refocus his drive and determination to be excellent. He lost his groove there, and because of that, he lost his job. That’s the end-all, be-all of kicking. It’s a performance-based industry. Either you make the kick or you don’t make the kick."

In Week 11 last season, Carlson was faced with what he calls some "good humor."

The Raiders (1-8 at the time) trailed the Arizona Cardinals 21-20 with two seconds remaining and were in position to win the game. All Carlson had to do was nail a 35-yard field goal, the same distance of the final kick he missed against the Packers.

Talk about serendipitous moment of redemption.

The kick was good. Carlson jumped into the arms of his teammates, a far cry from the keeled-over position of gut-wrenching defeat he displayed nine weeks prior at Lambeau Field.

"He’s been an iceman for us ... won a game at the buzzer last year, beating Arizona," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "Been very, very high percentage in terms of making kicks. Just really been a huge addition to our team. Sometimes a change of scenery just works out. We’re excited about him."

Carlson said he understands the "business position" the Vikings were in when they released him last season. Despite the way things worked out, could Minnesota have done anything differently?

"It’s tough to say in hindsight," Carlson said. "You could obviously say I had a great year to finish it off, but the coaches are in tough spots and they have to make those decision that are going to help the team going forward.

"I’m a firm believer that all things are going to work out if you continue to work, and that’s kind of been my testimony. It’s turned around, and I think I’ve learned some things and most of it worked out for the better in the long run. I’m in a really good spot in Oakland where I think we’re becoming a team that’s going to continue to build and get better here in the future."