Red McCombs owned the team. Rick Spielman was in his first season as a general manager … in Miami. Mike Tice was his head coach. Daunte Culpepper was having a MVP type season. Randy Moss was entering his final season with the team before traded to Oakland. Onterrio Smith was the leading rusher. Jermaine Wiggins led the team in receptions. Second-year man Kevin Williams and veteran Lance Johnstone combined for 22½ sacks. Morten Andersen was the kicker and Darren Bennett was the punter.
On Sunday afternoon, Loeffler was informed by Spielman that he was being released and the Vikings were going to go with third-year pro Kevin McDermott. Loeffler knew he was going to be in a competition for his job – this year’s training camp was the first time he faced a full-on competition since he beat out incumbent long snapper Brody Heffner-Liddiard in 2004 – but he wasn’t expecting the news he got from Spielman.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Loeffler said. “All I was doing was just trying to do my job and I thought I had one of my better training camps. You never know what the people upstairs are thinking, but I thought there was a good chance they were going to keep me around. It is what it is and now I’m a free agent for the first time in 11-plus years.”
There had been a lot of discussion from the time that McDermott was signed in the offseason that it could be precursor of things to come. It had happened before with the Vikings. The team drafted Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and the organization almost immediately released incumbents Ryan Longwell and Chris Kluwe.
While Loeffler wasn’t positive that his salary – $970,000 for 2015 – played a role in his release, he did feel that if there was a checklist of pros and cons to the decision-making process, McDermott’s base salary of $585,000 was clearly a benefit in his favor.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Loeffler said. “For a specialist getting up in years, that’s always an issue. The younger guys are normally less expensive and, if they can get the job done at a level that the front office guys think is at the same level, money can be an issue. I’m not sure if that was the overriding factor, but I’m sure it probably was one of the things that played into it.”
The changing of the guard to younger players has been a process that the Vikings have gone through over the past few seasons. One of Loeffler’s best friends remains kicker Ryan Longwell, who reached out to Loeffler Monday. He went through the same process of seeing his replacement brought into the organization and could empathize with the position Loeffler found himself in Sunday when he was told of his release.
The two played six seasons together in Minnesota and Longwell said the loss of Loeffler will have an impact beyond the gridiron because of the contribution he made to the organization as both a player and a representative of the Vikings brand.
“I was sad for Cullen, because we became really close in the time we played together,” Longwell said. “But, as we all know, this is the NFL. Time is undefeated and time gets the best of us all. He was the best and is so good at what does. But, more important than that, was that he had a huge role in the locker room on the teams I was on. He could hold court with every position group in there. That’s a real skill and you need those guys in this league to win. I think as much as they’ll miss his ability as a long snapper, they’ll miss his leadership in the locker room and how he represented the organization even more.”
Loeffler expected that a decision was going to be made sooner than later simply because of the logistics of a 53-man roster and how it pertains to specialists. During training camp and the first three preseason games, Loeffler and McDermott had effectively split all reps right down the middle to create an even playing field for their competition.
With three weeks until wins and losses start to matter, Loeffler was convinced that, one way or the other, the timing was right to make their decision and get the long snapper the Vikings were going to keep all of the work with Walsh and Locke instead of tagging in and out.
“I’m sure that’s why they wanted to go with just one guy at this point,” Loeffler said. “For the next two games, they want to make sure they get all the timing down. Whether it was me or McDermott, I’m sure they made the decision now so that the one guy they went with could get all the reps to make sure that everything is pinned up and ready for the season.”
For a position that demands perfection, Loeffler had his first big mistake in 11 seasons when a bad snap led to a blocked punt for a safety with 41 seconds remaining in regulation that cost the Vikings a 37-35 loss to Miami. He took the loss hard but didn’t feel it played into the team’s decision whether to keep him or not.
“It certainly didn’t help my cause,” Loeffler said. “For my position, one mistake is always too many. You just can’t do it. I had been fortunate to never have that happen before. You have to be perfect. You never know if that game came into play in their decision. I don’t think it was, because they re-signed me. I think if they had lost faith in me, they wouldn’t have brought me back.”
Like Longwell and Kluwe before him, Loeffler now finds his NFL career in limbo. But, as Longwell pointed out, eyes from the other 31 teams are always on players – even those who aren’t being challenged for their jobs in training camp. Specialists are a small, tight-knit fraternity and mistakes at any level are rarely tolerated. By his own admission, Longwell was “an old guy on an old team” and organizational youth movements happen with every team at some point.
“Our positions are rare because there’s only one of you on each team – one kicker, one punter and one long snapper,” Longwell said. “In the back of your head, you’re always kicking or snapping against everybody else, even if you aren’t facing competition in training camp or the preseason. You have to perform day in and day out. In our job, you can’t have slumps of poor kicking or poor snapping. It can never happen. It’s never an option.”
Loeffler still feels he has something to offer a team, but, as he spent his first full day as an unemployed NFL player, he isn’t sure if there is a place for him with one of the other 31 teams in the league.
“It’s never a perfect science because you don’t know what other teams want to do,” Loeffler said. “A lot of teams are settled at their long snapper position. It’s not like other positions where you have a bunch of guys backing up the starters. There are 32 long snappers in the NFL. It’s a pretty small group and it’s hard to get one of those spots. I’m just in a holding pattern right now. I’m going to talk to my family and make sure everything is right for us and go from there.”
Loeffler was taking the pre-preparatory steps for life after football. He is tying up loose ends in Minnesota before returning to his home in Texas. He did own a home in Eden Prairie, but sold the house in January because he was a pending free agent and his family was going to stay in Texas year-round. His daughter Landyn had her first day in second grade Monday and he felt that it was unfair for her to keep splitting time in school in Minnesota during the Vikings’ season and back home in Texas following the season.
Still, the news came as something of a shock to him, but he has had a lot of people reaching out to him – “it’s made the situation a lot easier for me,” Loeffler said – and he is at peace with the decision.
One of those players was Walsh, who happened to be at Winter Park when Loeffler got the news. He credited Loeffler with being a mentor and a friend when he was the new guy in the specialist group that had been together for years.
“Cullen is a great snapper and an even better human being,” Walsh said “He’s the guy that helped me transition to the league, so you’re always in debt to a guy like that. I know we’ll remain great friends and I know he can still play in the NFL and so does he.”
Longwell was one of the first to reach out when he heard the news and they had a long phone conversation Monday morning. When they spoke, Longwell reminded Loeffler to keep himself in top condition because you never know when the phone is going to ring. It happened for him in Seattle and he believes with Loeffler’s talent, the call may be coming from a team looking to bring him in.
“He still one of the best, if not the best, in the league,” Longwell said. “If he wants to keep playing I assume he’ll get some phone calls. I was crushed when I heard the news this morning. I understood the situation, but they’re going to miss him. I’m sure the other kid (McDermott) may do a great job snapping, but they’re going to miss Cullen in the locker room. There’s no doubt about that.”
Loeffler isn’t sure what the future will hold, but he doesn’t plan on submitting his retirement paperwork any time in the immediate future. He has spent his entire career with one organization and isn’t sure if there will be a lot of interest from the outside. He still has a passion for the game, but understands how the business of football works and, like so many before him, if the call from a team doesn’t come, he’s satisfied that he had a longer run than most players ever get and he has enjoyed his NFL career as much as anyone.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Loeffler said. “Now it comes down to my family, which has always been the most important to me. I feel I still have something to offer, but, at this point, I just don’t know. Until yesterday, it wasn’t even a concern. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Nobody ever wants to walk away from the game when it’s not their own decision, but I’ve had a great time and Minnesota will always be my second home. Unfortunately, if you play long enough, that day comes for everybody.”
Being a long snapper is pretty thankless job. The only time you get front and center attention is when you make a mistake. When you’re doing your job right, it doesn’t get noticed because it’s what is supposed to happen. For 171 games as a member of the Vikings, Loeffler’s name didn’t get called very often, which is a testament to how well he did his job.