Through the ups and downs of the Vikings over the last three years, the one aspect of their game that has been as dead-on-perfect as any element of the team has been its field goal kicking. The Vikings' specialists – long snapper Cullen Loeffler, holder Chris Kluwe and kicker Ryan Longwell – have been a well-oiled machine.
From the start of the 2009 season through the fourth week of the 2011 season, Longwell had missed just three of 53 field goal attempts – making almost 95 percent of his attempts. In the last four weeks, however, he has missed three of nine attempts – a woeful 67 percent.
In a league that is based on the principle of "what have you done for me lately," Longwell has become a victim of his own largesse. He, Kluwe and Loeffler have been so proficient for so long that a misstep here or there is viewed as catastrophic. Asked for a reason for the recent problems, Longwell couldn't help but make light of the recent troubles.
"It's Loeffler's fault," Longwell said with a grin, quickly correcting the joke by saying he was merely kidding.
But the Vikings are taking the recent misses very seriously. None of them were of the magnitude of Olindo Mare's 31-yard shank that would have sent the Carolina game to overtime, but, when you have enjoyed the kind of machine-like precision the Vikings' trio has had in recent years, any failure is cause for concern because not only do they seem to make good on every field goal attempt, they expect to make each one and consider a miss as a failure.
"We used the bye week to look at things and figure out what was happening," Longwell said. "You can never be 100 percent sure, but we think we found little things that we were doing differently and have them fixed."
Kluwe said that film study showed minor imperfections in what they were doing on field goal attempts, but said there was nothing that was clearly black and white. It was just little things that, as Longwell said, were correctable. The worst thing the Vikings could go, Kluwe theorized, was to make big changes in what has been so successful for them in the past.
"We went back and looked at it on film and we came away from it was just a rare instance in which Ryan just didn't hit those like he wants to," Kluwe said. "We'll see if there's anything we need to change in little things – tilting the ball a little bit one way, but the good thing about working so long with one another is we all know our job and what we need to do to correct mistakes when they happen and get back to the accuracy Ryan is so known for."
For a field goal to be successful, there are three components that have to be perfect – the snap to the holder, the placement of the ball on the ground and the kick itself. A snap too high or too low can kill the play. A bobble from the holder or having the laces pointing the wrong way can kill the play. Striking the ball an inch or two off target by the kicker can kill the play. There are a lot of plates spinning at the same time and all of them have to be synchronized for a field goal attempt to work. Combine that with the fact that they have about 1.5 seconds to make all three of them work and it's shocking that more field goals aren't missed.
"We try to make it look like clockwork out there and that it's automatic, but there are a lot of moving parts in a short period of time when you're kicking field goals," Longwell said. "Being just a little bit off in the timing we have can make a big difference."
For those who are wondering what is suddenly wrong with the Vikings' kicking game, Kluwe said there shouldn't be a rush to judgment. The Vikings' specialists haven't gone off the road, they've just hit a bump in it and are convinced that their recent woes are an anomaly, not a trend.
"Over the last three years, we have the highest field goal accuracy percentage in the league," Kluwe said. "I think that's the thing you always have to be careful of – if a kick is missed, you don't need to change something that isn't broken. Sometimes there are just times when stuff doesn't happen the way you want it to. Ryan has been hitting the ball well and has been very consistent. I don't think we change up anything because it's worked so well for us in the past and I don't see that changing."
While Longwell took ownership for the recent misses, saying the ball wasn't coming off his foot quite right during the misses, Kluwe said he wasn't surprised by his mea culpa. He said Longwell is a consummate professional who is recognized as one of the top kickers in the league, especially in the clutch, and that the only reason the recent problems have become an issue is because the expectations – from themselves, the coaches, their teammates and the fans – have been raised so high that the misses stand out more than they do with other teams, where field goals beyond 40 yards are far from guaranteed.
"The ideal goal is to have the same mechanics every time – it doesn't always happen that way, but that's the goal," Kluwe said. "It's so uncharacteristic that Ryan misses a kick that I don't think people realize just how good he is at his job. That isn't the norm around the league to make 95 percent of your kicks. That's the outline of the Bell curve. He's done so well that, when he does miss, people wonder what is wrong."
As the Vikings head into the second half of the season, the goal of the specialists is what it always is – every time they get the opportunity, they cash in. Longwell said none of them has lost confidence and that they're more upset than anyone else over the recent malaise. He said they have been putting in extra time to perfect their timing and they will right the ship and get back to business as usual – making all of their field goal opportunities to help the team win.
"One of the reasons we have been so successful is that the three of us have worked so well together," Longwell said. "I expect that to continue. It's just little things that need to be tweaked, not big things that need to be overhauled or one of the three of us being replaced. I think once we get back to work Monday night, things will get back to normal and we'll move forward like we always have."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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