Longwell thrives in restless kicking world

Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell missed only his second field goal of the season last week, but that's far better than a lot of kickers around the league. This year has been an especially turbulent one for kickers throughout the NFL.

The Vikings have many things to be thankful for this season, but one of the unsung heroes of the 2009 season has been kicker Ryan Longwell. Fans saw something last Sunday that they haven't seen all year – Longwell miss a kick. His 39-yard field goal attempt against Carolina missed by inches, hitting the right upright. For the season, Longwell has lined up 24 times to kick field goals. Prior to Sunday's miss, 22 of the previous 23 attempts were good and the only one that wasn't was blocked before it got past the line of scrimmage.

With the many ups and a few downs of the Vikings this season, one consistent factor all year long has been Longwell's success rate. That hasn't been the case around the league. Due to injuries, ineffectiveness and one suspension (to Garrett Hartley of New Orleans) a record nine teams have employed more than one kicker this season. Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas (as of tonight), Indianapolis, New Orleans and Washington have each used two kickers and Tampa Bay has used three. The days of kickers being in a slump are a thing of the past. As big a pressure cooker as kicking has always been, it has been ratcheted up this year and failure isn't an option.

Just ask Nick Folk. Two years ago, he was one of the hottest kicking prospects in the league. He's currently unemployed. Longwell knows that a string of misses – especially on kicks inside of 45 yards – can result in a quick pink slip for a kicker.

"It's one of those things that guys will get in bad streaks and can't get out of it," Longwell said. "Teams want a consistent guy at that position and sometimes it's mental. You have to realize that each kick is individual. Folk was a Pro Bowler a couple of years ago, so anything can happen if you start to struggle like that."

This is a relatively new phenomenon, but not without precedent. In 2005-06, it seemed like a death knell for veteran kickers. With the salary cap creating tight spots for some teams, paying top dollar for a 10-year veteran kicker didn't make sense to a lot of teams. That has changed, because, while they may not be able to boom kickoffs like their younger counterparts, their ability to make pressure field goals is what keeps them coming back and getting the call when the flavor of the month goes sour.

"If you look back over the last several years, it seems to come in waves," Longwell said. "It seems as though there's been a lot of turnover at the position this year. There's a premium on proven kickers and there aren't a lot of them out there right now. That's why you're seeing the same guys coming in for workouts and some catch on."

The Saints, for example, brought Hartley back to the active roster two weeks ago, but waited until this week to release veteran John Carney. Longwell said he wasn't surprised by the decision, because kickers who can knock through field goals with the game on the line are a commodity and teams don't let go easily.

"You saw when Hartley came back that the Saints kept Carney for a couple of extra weeks on the roster just to make sure (Hartley) was going to be able to do the job. He had missed more than a month and it just goes to show how important they thought the position was to keep two kickers on the roster just to be sure Hartley would be in a groove. You don't want to let a veteran like Carney go because you know what you have."

Longwell said the difference between him and other veterans and the new breed of NFL kicker is that the older guys have perfected their mechanics over the years and don't let a brief bad snap affect them.

"You need to know your style," Longwell said. "I've seen guys try to fix things by studying more film and more film and more film. That's not always the best solution. I've always tried to make every kick I try with a snap and a hold and make it as game-like as possible and keep the rhythm the same. That way, if you do feel like you're getting out of rhythm, you go back with your guys. For us, it isn't a technical fix. It's a ‘feel' fix you can ride out when you're not in a good groove."

As the Vikings look to again bounce back from a bad defeat in prime time, they have a lot of things going in their favor. But one that may not be noticed all that much may, in the end, be the difference between going to a Super Bowl and watching from the sidelines.

CHRISTMAS DAY NOTES

  • There were no changes to the Vikings injury report Thursday. All four players who were limited in practice Wednesday – Steve Hutchinson (shoulder), Pat Williams (elbow), Antoine Winfield (foot) and Brian Robison (quadriceps) – were limited on Thursday as well.

  • The Bears injury report saw several significant changes. DE Adewale Ogunleye (leg, out) won't play Monday and two more players – safeties Kevin Payne (ankle) and Al Afalava (knee) – didn't practice for a second straight day. However, two players who didn't participate in Wednesday's practice – LB Lance Briggs (back) and TE Desmond Clark (illness) – were both back in full participation. OT Chris Williams (ankle), who missed Wednesday's practice, was limited Thursday. WR Devin Hester (calf) remained limited for the second straight day, but two others limited Wednesday – DT Tommie Harris (knee) and OT Orlando Pace (groin) – were full participants in Thursday's practice. Two players were added to the injury report and didn't practice – CB Charles Tillman (non-injury related) and RB Adrian Peterson (illness).


    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.
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