Giving the boot

Ryan Longwell doesn't possess a booming leg off the kickoff tee. Not exactly breaking news. But what does that ultimately mean when it comes to field position? <p>

In a breakdown of the special-teams stats, Longwell's lack of length may not matter as much as you might think.

The opponent's starting field position after a Longwell kickoff is the 31.6-yard line. While that figure ranks far behind those of the league's big-legged bombers, when compared to the rest of the league, Longwell's short kickoffs aren't putting the defense in a precarious position. The average starting position leaguewide after a kickoff is the 29.4-yard line.

Thus, Longwell's short kickoffs mean the Packers' opponents get a 2.2-yard gain in field position when compared to the average kicker.

Of course, field position depends on much more than how far the kicker can drive the ball. No place is that better shown than in Dallas. Among the 26 players who kicked off at least 48 times (three kicks per game), Cowboys kicker Billy Cundiff ranks 13th in average distance. But thanks to sterling play by the coverage unit, the average starting point for Dallas' opponents is the 25.9-yard line. That ranks fourth in the league.

Dallas allowed 17.5 yards per return compared to 20.2 by the Packers. Swap those figures and the 2.7-yard distance would move the Packers from 18th in the field-position rankings to 11th.

For what it's worth, Longwell's kickoffs rank 20th in distance among the 26 kickers. Part of that is strategy, though, as special-teams coordinator John Bonamego preaches directional kicking and hang time over flat-out nailing it. Lambeau Field in November and December, of course, is no picnic, either. It's harder to kick the ball when the field is wet or frozen and the air is cold, obviously, than it is to kick the ball in a dome.

Distance off the tee, however, is the overriding factor in determining field position.

The league's most powerful leg, for kickoffs at least, belongs to Arizona's Neil Rackers. His average kickoff traveled 67.5 yards (to the 2.5-yard line). Mix in a league-high 23 touchbacks and a competent coverage unit, and the Cardinals' opponents average starting point is the 23.9-yard line. That ranks tops in the league.

Of the top eight in kickoff distance, seven of those teams rank in the top eight in field position. The only team to crack the top eight is Dallas, with Cundiff. Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski ranks sixth in kickoff distance but the Raiders rank 10th in field position due to shoddy coverage teams.

Among NFC North teams, Detroit ranks second in the league in field position. With Jason Hanson's big leg and stellar coverage, the Lions' opponents start from the 24.1-yard line. Chicago, with weak-legged Paul Edinger kicking off, ranks 25th among the 26 teams. Edinger's kickoffs are among the shortest in the league. He failed to record a touchback; he's the only regular kicker with that distinction. Minnesota, with four players kicking off, did not figure into the rankings.

One reason why Longwell can't get past Philadelphia's David Akers for NFC Pro Bowl honors is kickoffs. With 12 touchbacks, Akers is a special-teams weapon. Longwell had just two touchbacks, and Akers' kickoffs travel 6.3 yards further, on average.

Below is a listing of the 26 kickers who teed it up at least 48 times. "Dist" means the kickoff's distance. "TB" stands for touchback. "Ret" means the opponents' average kickoff return. "FP" stands for field position.

Kicker (team) Dist TB Ret FP

Rackers (Ariz) 67.5 23 22.1 23.9

Hanson (Det) 64.3 14 19.3 24.1

Scobee (Jax) 65.2 11 19.9 24.7

Cundiff (Dal) 61.7 3 17.5 25.9

Feely (Atl) 63.8 13 20.0 26.2

Akers (Phil) 64.9 12 23.2 27.6

K. Brown (Hou) 63.8 9 23.2 28.0

Knorr (Den) 64.4 15 23.3 28.1

Gowin (NYJ) 63.0 7 21.7 28.5

Janikwoski (Oak) 64.1 12 23.5 28.8

Graham (Cin) 60.5 2 19.6 29.1

J. Brown (Sea) 61.4 5 21.8 29.3

Reed (Pit) 62.1 7 21.6 29.4

Lindell (Buf) 58.3 3 18.3 30.1

Vinatieri (NE) 63.0 6 23.3 30.1

Richey (Bal) 63.1 7 24.1 30.4

Kaeding (SD) 61.1 2 22.3 31.1

Longwell (GB) 58.6 2 20.2 31.6

Wilkins (StL) 63.6 6 25.5 31.7

Tynes (KC) 60.5 7 22.4 31.7

Christie (NYG) 57.7 2 19.4 31.8

Dawson (Cle) 60.5 5 22.6 31.9

Kasay (Car) 59.9 2 21.9 31.9

Hentrich (Ten) 57.6 3 19.8 32.2

Edinger (Chi) 58.4 0 21.7 32.3

Peterson (SF) 56.4 1 20.0 33.6

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