Thursday, November 30, 2023

Boca Rookies Rock the NFL

Kicker Blair Walsh and running back Alfred Morris have finished their rookie regular seasons in the National Football League with far more in common than their Boca-based backgrounds and impending trips to the playoffs. Both players were selected in the sixth round by their respective NFL teams—Walsh by the Minnesota Vikings; Morris by the Washington Redskins. Both arrived with question marks about their ability to make it on the game’s biggest stage.

And both ended up proving their detractors wrong in record-setting fashion.

Vikings fans were perplexed by Minnesota’s decision to drop a draft pick on Walsh, a Boca resident who attended Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale. Minnesota already had veteran Ryan Longwell on its roster, and Walsh was coming off a confidence-rattling senior season at the University of Georgia, connecting on only 21 of 35 field goals.

But Walsh not only justified the Vikings’ decision to dump Longwell, he made NFL history during the regular season by connecting on all 10 of his field-goal attempts of 50 yards or longer. Walsh, who led the league in field goals made with 35 (out of 38 attempts), eclipsed the previous record of eight kicks of 50 yards or more (shared by Morten Anderson of the Falcons in 1995 and Jason Hanson of the Lions in 2008). He ended the regular season in style, kicking the Vikings into the playoffs with a 29-yard field goal in the final seconds that gave Minnesota a 37-34 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings (10-6), which won their last four games, travel to Green Bay (11-5) this Saturday for a repeat battle in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

As for Morris, few people outside of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan—notorious for unearthing late-round talent at the running back position—would have forecasted instant success for the 5-foot-9, 218-pounder. After rushing for 3,506 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons as the featured back at Florida Atlantic University, Morris faced questions at the 2012 NFL Combine about his lack of speed and athleticism. A post-combine analysis at noted that “Morris will need to prove himself as a thumper early or else he will just be considered a situational back who doesn’t possess enough quality traits to deserve a roster spot.”

Not only did the Pensacola native earn a roster spot, but he helped to lead the Redskins to the NFC East title by rushing for a team-record 1,613 yards and a Washington rookie record of 13 touchdowns. In the winner-take-all, regular-season finale against the Cowboys, Morris shredded the Dallas defense to the tune of a career-high 200 yards and three touchdowns as Washington won 28-18 to secure its division. Morris, who finished the season with seven games of 100 or more yards, averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Only Adrian Peterson of the Vikings (2,097) rushed for more yards in 2012 than Morris.

The Redskins (10-6) host the Seattle Seahawks (11-5) this Sunday in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

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