One of the hallmarks of the NFL is when a current player breaks a career record of one of the greats to play at his position. At the time former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton retired, he owned every passing record there was. Since then, he has been surpassed by the likes of Brett Favre, Dan Mario and John Elway. With the NFL era of passing numbers being consistently high, there are sure to be others that will pass him. But to pass a Hall of Fame legend like Tarkenton remains an achievement.
On Sunday, with five points Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell will surpass NFL kicking legend Lou Groza for 23rd on the all-time scoring list. Longwell currently sits with 1,344 points, behind Groza's 1,349. Groza played 17 seasons from 1950-67 and is the oldest kicker in terms of when he played on the all-time list except for George Blanda. Nicknamed "The Toe," Groza was the benchmark by which all other kickers were measured for decades.
To pass many of his contemporaries is one thing, but to pass a legend of the game is another.
Longwell said he's familiar with Groza because the top college kicker in the nation annually wins the Groza Award – which makes besting his career points total even more an achievement to Longwell.
"The most I know is about him is that the college award given to the best kicker is named after him," Longwell said. "As NFL kickers, we get to vote on it. To be mentioned in the same breath with the guys that I've been passing on the scoring list is pretty humbling."
By season's end, Longwell will likely surpass Vikings all-time leading scorer Fred Cox (1,365 points) for 22nd on the all-time list. He could make a serious jump next year, with the chance to pass Jim Bakken (1,380), Mark Moseley (1,382), Jeff Wilkins (1,416), Matt Bahr (1,422), Jim Turner (1,439), Pat Leahy (1,470) and Steve Christie (1,476) – which would put him in the top 15 all-time scorers.
It has truly been a remarkable run for Longwell, who was brought in by the Packers 12 years ago simply to take some of the work away from high draft pick Brett Conway. Longwell got the job when Conway was injured and, after a strong rookie season, won the competition the following year. The rest, as the say, was the making of history.
"When you look back at the way I got the job in Green Bay in the first place, a lot of things had to happen for me to be around this long," Longwell said. "Twelve years later, I still approach the job the same way and the points keep adding up."
Longwell said the role of the kicker has changed significantly over the years. When guys like Cox were kicking for the Vikings, if a kicker made 70 percent of his attempts, he was one of the best in the league. If a kicker misses 30 percent of his kicks now, he's out of a job. Kickers train differently. The competition is fiercer and the demand for perfection is unmatched.
"It's become a specialty that guys train for at a young age now," Longwell said. "Much like the ways that offenses and defenses have evolved, the same is true with kicking. You can't afford to lose points. With free agency helping to make teams a lot more equal, you have to able to make all the points you can."
When Longwell joined the league, it was the dawning of the age of the salary cap. Veteran kickers commanded too much money simply because of years of service and it made them more expendable. However, that has changed and veteran kickers with the ability to be almost automatic from anywhere inside 40 yards has become just as high a premium.
"You see how the role of the kicker has evolved," Longwell said. "When I came into the league, the trend was to go with young kickers with strong legs that were cheaper than veteran kickers. That a changed a lot over the last decade. Kickers last a lot longer because there is such a premium of making field goals, especially ones inside of 40 or 45 yards. Those older guys have proved over the years that they can do it and more teams are willing to go with them over an unknown."
Whether it comes on a field goal or an extra point, it is likely Longwell will score the five points needed to move one step higher on the all-time list. Because of the significance of passing "The Toe," Longwell said he might want to get a memento of the event.
"I'd like to keep the ball if I can," Longwell said. "It will have a ‘K' on it (the markings put on balls used in games for kicking), but that's fine with me. It's the day and age we're living in now in the NFL."
Longwell set to pass ‘The Toe'
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