Longwell Analyzes Pressure Field Goals

The last time the Vikings and Lions met, Ryan Longwell missed a 52-yard field goal off the left upright and Detroit went on to win in overtime. That hardly seems to be of much concerned to him these days, as he knows the pressures of his job and how to handle them. Longwell talks kicker longevity, mechanics and pressure-packed situations.

To some, the life of the kicker is about as good as it gets in the NFL. Even the best of kickers can walk into a restaurant, a bar or a store and not be immediately recognized like many other NFL players are. They are only asked to have physical contact on the football field when it is absolutely necessary and, if you've seen kickers or punters try to stop a return man from scoring a touchdown, you know there hasn't been an overabundance of time put into that aspect of their game. And, if they're good, they make upwards of $1 million a year to do it.

But it is also a demanding position that asks for perfection – perhaps the only job in the NFL where any and all mistakes are magnified and on display – a kicker is only as good as his last kick. For years, Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills was viewed as one of the best kickers in the league. One miss in the Super Bowl against the Giants that would have given Norwood and all of his teammates a championship ring –despite subsequent appearances, they never achieved – and within seconds he went from being one of the best kickers in the game to a goat at the level of Bill Buckner.

There are clearly two schools of thought as it pertains to being a kicker in the NFL. Ryan Longwell of the Vikings knows full well the ups and downs of that life. This Sunday he will face the Detroit Lions, a team that he's played twice a year since he came into the league with Green Bay in 1997. His recent history has been tied heavily to Detroit. In 2004 at Lambeau Field, he hit a 23-yard field goal (his third of the day) with two seconds left to give the Packers a 16-13 win. In 2005 against the Lions, he hit a 39-yard field goal as time expired to send the game to overtime and hit a 28-yarder with 5:17 to play to give the Packers another 16-13 win.

But earlier this season, he was called on to do the same. With no time left in a tie game at Detroit, he missed a 52-yard field goal that had plenty of distance, but bonked off the left upright to send the game to overtime. The Lions would eventually get a field goal from Jason Hanson in overtime for a 20-17 win – a victory that currently still has the Lions ahead of a glut of 5-6 teams in the race for the second wild card spot.

With the type of games the Vikings have had in the Brad Childress era – 12 of their 27 games have been decided by six or fewer points – the role of the kicker has been vital. Any missed points could be the difference between winning and losing. But for Longwell, he doesn't buy into the pressure-cooker of a fourth-quarter field goal. As he sees it, no kicker should change their approach to kicking a field goal – regardless of the situation.

"I've always taken the approach that a first-quarter field goal is just as important as a potential game-winner at the end of a game," Longwell said. "I've always felt that a situation doesn't make a kick more or less important. That's helped me numb myself a little bit to being in a pressure situation when it comes time to kick. You can lose a game by missing a field goal in the first quarter just as easily as missing one in the end."

While it's clear that a field goal that can end a game has more significance to it, Longwell said that his teammates know he has done his best to prepare for his kick and, if it goes or doesn't, it wasn't due to lack of effort. As he views it, just about every player on the team is a specialist in some form. But missing a big kick has the effect of bringing down everyone at the same time – especially for the guy who missed it.

"It affects you if you miss a big field goal – there's no doubt about it," Longwell said. "You try not to get too excited after a made field goal or too down after a missed one. But it definitely hurts when don't succeed and help out your team. It just works out sometimes that you have almost 100 guys out there playing for 60 minutes and it all comes down to one play. I've never had anybody call me out for missing a field goal. You don't do that. I don't chew out a defensive back for getting burned on a touchdown pass. Everyone knows we have a tough job and that we're all specialists in what we do – whether you're a quarterback, a cornerback or a punter."

The kicking position has undergone a metamorphosis in the recent history of the league. Once a position that was filled by running backs, quarterbacks or even linemen, the insurgence of European kickers and those with a soccer background changed the game. Most would view Fred Cox as the best kicker in Vikings history, but, for his entire 15-year career with the Vikings, Cox made just 62 percent of his field goal attempts (282 of 455). Heading into this weekend, 23 of the league's 32 kickers are averaging better than 80 percent on field goal attempts. It has become a specialized position that has no tolerance for failure. Cox wouldn't have lasted more than a year or two with the expectations today.

So why the big change? According to Longwell, it was the advent of free agency combined with kicking becoming a specialized position as far back as junior high school. Kids are committing themselves early on to be a kicker only and the NFL has become a league that, with the competitive playing field (all 32 teams now have with the salary cap), many games are decided by a field goal or less.

"Once free agency came into the game and the parity came into play, a lot of games were coming down to games being won or lost by three points or less," Longwell said. "A lot of games aren't decided until the final couple of minutes and a premium has been placed on getting kickers and punters that can do their jobs with as few mistakes as possible. That's why teams have long snappers now. They learned that you need someone who specializes in delivering every snap in the same spot every time. With parity, everyone needs some kind of edge. If you miss too many field goals, you won't be around too long. You need to have a guy you can depend on."

With that kind of pressure, it's easy to see why teams signed veteran kickers like Gary Anderson, John Carney and Morten Andersen year after year. They are players that may not have the strongest legs in the world, but put them inside of 45 yards and they're close to automatic. But with the pressure of using one roster spot on the kicking position, most teams don't have the luxury of a field goal specialist and a kickoff specialist. They need to make do with one. That is the biggest question mark that plagues older kickers. When is diminishing leg strength an issue?

Longwell said the position of kicker has become a pressure-packed job because of the need to make every opportunity possible. While it doesn't always happen, it's the expectation every time a coach calls on a kicker that he will deliver three points. When it doesn't happen, some kickers get into a funk and change their motion and assume something is wrong. Longwell has only had two seasons in which he has made less than 83 percent of his kicks, but he credits that to not getting a case of paralysis by over-analysis of his kicking technique.

"I've seen guys that have gone from hitting the ball really good to suddenly not being able to make a kick," Longwell said. "Most of those guys are people who overanalyze what they do mechanically. I've never paid a lot of attention to analyzing other people or what they do. I've always been a rhythm kicker and that has helped me not have any prolonged bad streaks. I've stayed with the same basic field goal motion I've always had and it's worked pretty well. The guys who get too technical about it get to thinking about too many other things than just making the kick."

When the Vikings and Lions meet Sunday, two of the best veteran kickers in the game will line up opposite one another – Longwell and Hanson. If this game holds up to so many Vikings-Lions games of the recent past, it may well come down to one kick at the end to decide who wins and who loses. Longwell will be ready if his name is called … as well as the expectation of a different outcome than the one the last time the two teams met.

"I don't spend a lot of time looking back at kicks I made or ones I missed," Longwell said. "Every game is different and what you've done in the past doesn't really have any bearing on what you will do on Sunday. That's the nature of the business. If the coach asks if I think I can make a field goal at the end of the game, I'm sure I'll tell him I can and he will expect me to make it. So will I. So will everyone else whose watching the game. That's my job. If it comes up, I'll get ready the same as I did the last time we played Detroit – except this time I'll make it."

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