Ryan Longwell (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
Short-term replacement kickers used to be pretty commonplace, but last year everything changed with the kickoff line being moved up. The numbers showed more stability for kickers staying on rosters.
For years, there was an adage that old kickers never retire, they just wait for the next opportunity. Guys like Gary Anderson, Morten Andersen and John Carney became veteran guns for hire – moving on to a team in need. Ryan Longwell finds himself in that position.
Given the importance of having a clutch kicker, it would seem that there wouldn’t be an enormous difference between the NFL of today and the NFL of just a few years ago. The Washington Redskins are a great example. In 2009, they used two different kickers. In 2006, they used three. In 2005, they used two. In 2004, they used three. In 2002, they used two. The advice given to any kicker in Washington has been “Rent, don’t own.” While the Redskins are an egregious example, they are far from alone. If a kicker got a case of “the yips,” he was shown the door. Now, not so much.
Just as teams have invested in the franchise quarterback as a league-wide mantra, so it would seem is the kicker position. With the move of the kickoff line from the 30- to the 35-yard line, the NFL find a way to essentially neutralize the top kick returners in the game.
The NFL keeps exhaustive statistics. Among them is to list anyone who kicks. In a typical year, there would be north of 40 kickers that would see action in the NFL. A handful of teams would keep two kickers on the roster – one for kickoffs and one for field goals and extra points. The move of the kickoff line not only placed incredible value on a kicker that could boom touchbacks, but eliminated the need for two kickers on a roster.
So how many teams used more than one kicker in 2011? Four.
One of them Vikings fans will remember. In the season opener against San Diego, Percy Harvin got the new year off to a flying start, taking the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. On that play, kicker Nate Kaeding suffered an injury that knocked him out for the season. Punter Scott Scifries took his place and made his only field goal attempt. The next week, journeyman Nick Novak got the call and finished the season.
Two of those four teams were Baltimore and Miami – and they used the same guy (Shayne Graham) to fill their short-term void. Billy Cundiff suffered an injury that caused him to miss one game for the Ravens. Graham cashed a check, made both of field goal attempts and a pair of extra points. The next week, Cundiff was healthy and Graham vacated his locker. When Miami lost Dan Carpenter for two weeks, Graham again got the call and delivered, making four of five field goals (his only miss from 47 yards) and scored 18 points in two games. But, when Carpenter was healthy two weeks later, Graham took his talents out of South Beach.
The only team that had significant kicker issues was Buffalo. The Bills used three kickers – Rian Lindell, Dave Rayner and Brandon Coutu. Lindell played the first eight games before being injured and sent to the sidelines. Rayner played the next seven games and pretty much stunk the joint out, missing five of 15 field goals. Coutu played in the season finale against New England and scored three points, missing his only field goal.
If not for his injury on the opening kickoff, Kaeding would have been the Chargers kicker all season. The same could be said for Lindell, who is atop the Buffalo depth chart again this year as the team heads toward training camp. Ditto for Cundiff and Carpenter, both of who earned their jobs back.
In all, 31 of the NFL’s 32 teams had the same kicker for 14 or more games and 28 of them had a kicker that played all 16 games. That is not good news for Longwell, who currently isn’t on an NFL roster.
It’s hard to believe that a seemingly innocuous rules change could transform a position so quickly, but the proof is in the numbers. All 16 NFC teams used the same kicker all season and only 36 different kickers were used the entire season.
Longwell isn’t signing his retirement paperwork any time soon because there is always the chance the call will come, but, as long as kickers are booming their kicks out of the end zone thanks to the NFL’s concern about concussions, if you don’t have a job on opening day, chances are you’re not going to get one.
Kickers will never be extinct in the NFL – after all, the word “foot” is in the name of the game. But, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that replacement kickers are becoming an endangered species.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.