Longwell, who departed the Packers via free agency this past off-season has been replaced by Rayner, a second-year pro who has been a pleasant surprise on the NFL's youngest team. Though months ago replacing Longwell looked like a major challenge, the Packers have made out just fine with Rayner, and in some ways have a better kicker.
Nothing can discount Longwell's contributions over nine years with the Packers though. He is the franchise's all-time leading scorer, he proved to be money in the clutch, and he was superbly consistent with time. Such credentials made him attractive for a big payday in free agency, so when the Vikings called, he scored big. He saw little interest from the Packers in re-signing during last season and an even smaller chance this past off-season.
"I wish I could tell you that I gave them the chance, but the thing is, it was pretty evident to me that they did not want us back," said Longwell in a teleconference with Wisconsin media on Wednesday. "I walked in the day after the last game, and obviously coach Sherman had been fired, and I was told to go see personnel before I take off, and I walked up there and it was literally a five-second conversation. It was, ‘Thanks for everything. It's been great. We'll talk to you.' And I walked out, I didn't even get out of the elevator actually after they, why they said that, and I got down, walked out of the building and I called (wife) Sarah and I said, ‘I think we're done here,' because I just got the wrong vibe that there really wasn't going to be an effort to re-sign."
The Packers broke contract talks off in late January and Longwell signed with the Vikings nearly two months later. At the time, it seemed like a major loss for the Packers, but the emergence of Rayner has changed that thinking. The Packers now have a kicker with a stronger leg, at a cheaper price, with many more years ahead of him.
For comparison purposes, Rayner is a little better than Longwell this year. He has made 12 of 15 field goals through eight games with a long of 54 yards. He also has nine touchbacks in 37 kicks. Longwell has connected on 14 of 17 field goals with a long of 49 yards. He has three touchbacks in 33 kicks.
In 2005, Rayner was honing his craft as a kickoff specialist with the Colts, deferring field goal attempts to Mike Vanderjagt. Longwell, in his last season with the Packers, made 20 of 27 field goals. That 74.1% conversion rate, while respectable, was the second lowest percentage of his career. He admitted to struggling with different holders throughout the season, and in a contract year, it became a decent possibility that he would not come back to Green Bay.
Longwell kicked two game-winners against the Vikings in 2004, playing his part in the last four Packers-Vikings regular season games being decided by field goals on the final play of the game. With evenly matched teams again this Sunday, there could be more kicking drama. Made aware of that, Rayner gave his own perspective going up against Longwell.
"I don't think he's going into it trying to prove he's better than I am, and I'm not going in trying to say I'm as good as he is, but it should be good," he said. "It should be a good little battle."
While Longwell has the edge on Rayner in experience and long-term consistency, he also has had many more shots at game-ending kicks. Rayner has had only one, and that came in college. At Michigan St., in a game at Michigan, his 53-yard attempt into a stiff wind fell short in a tie game.
Still, Rayner, in his first year as a full-time kicker, is making quick progress and showing unlimited potential. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has taken notice.
"He's really never been given a chance," said McCarthy. "The thing, once again, is he's got a strong leg. You need that in this part of the country. I think he just needed an opportunity to kick field goals on a regular basis. He struggled sometimes during training camp, but I wouldn't say he exceeded (expectations). I'm hoping he can be here for a long time."
Rayner's ability cannot be overlooked and his personality suggests he will do well when he faces a possible game-winning kick. His rise from the beginning of training camp until now has been one of the great stories of the Packers season and it makes the loss of Longwell a little easier to swallow.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.