Ryan Longwell is a bit put off by the Vikings' addition of Rhys Lloyd as a second kicker on the roster, but it's time for Longwell to kick that notion.
The idea is that Lloyd will handle kickoffs and Longwell, who is entering his 14th NFL season, will handle field goals. In coach-speak, that's called playing to their strengths, and it's the right move.
Longwell doesn't like the idea of having another player for kickoffs because it takes away from his ability to judge how the wind and elements affect his kickoffs, a strategy that helps him when it comes time to judge the target area for a field goal later in the game. The fact that Longwell uses that strategy shows his professional approach to the game, employing everything he can gather for input to have the best opportunity for success.
He used the example of gauging the wind in a late December game at Soldier Field last year and how that helped when it came time to make a 41-yard, fourth-quarter field goal.
"(That) was a kick that the wind was blowing hard off the left all game, but kicking that direction kicking off the ball just wasn't falling right," Longwell said. "It wasn't going with what the wind felt like. So when we went out there, I aimed accordingly to how the ball flew on kickoffs and made it. It's things like that I think with games in Washington and New England and Philly, where we play this year, it's a tool that I've always used."
It really is a nice tool for him to use, but he should still be able to gather much of the same information by watching for the effect that the elements have on Lloyd's kickoffs or on the opposing kickoffs. It may not affect their kicks exactly the same, but it should give him some information.
The fact is, the Vikings are always looking for a way to improve and Lloyd presents them the opportunity to do it on kickoff coverage. In 2008, the Vikings ranked 21st in kick return average by their opponents, giving up 23.8 yards per return. That isn't terrible, but it was below average.
Last year, they improved to 15th, giving up 22.6 yards per return, but the average starting position still ranked 23rd because the kickoffs weren't getting as deep. Longwell was only getting the ball to the end zone on 22.4 percent of his kicks. Only three other teams had a lower percentage, and 22 teams had their kickoffs reach the end zone more than 30 percent of the time. In fact, 10 teams had their kickoffs reach the end zone more than 50 percent of the time.
Longwell had 98 kickoffs in 2009 and reached the end zone 22 times. Carolina, which had Lloyd as its kickoff man, reached the end zone on 56.9 percent of its kicks. At those percentages, the Vikings' kickoffs would have reached the end zone more than double the amount of times they did last year.
"Field position is huge. If you can start them out with touchbacks every time and they start at the 20-yard line with no momentum, it's a huge burst for our defense," said special teams ace Heath Farwell. "And anything better than that, if you can get them inside the 20, the chances of scoring and going 85-plus yards in the NFL is slim to none. It rarely happens that a team drives 80 yards, especially on our defense.
Even so, Longwell would like to continue kicking off.
"It's odd," said Longwell, who remains very effective on field-goal attempts and made 28 of 30 attempts last season. "It wasn't like I asked to not do it and it's not like I prefer not doing it. (It's) definitely something that I've never had to deal with before. We kicked off yesterday and I was with the (second) team. It's just something that you've got to kind of take it a day at a time. We have a long ways between now and the final roster."
That's exactly what it will come down to – a roster decision: Do the Vikings want to keep Lloyd, who could have an impact on about six kickoffs a game or a kick coverage specialist who might impact one or two kickoffs a game by making a tackle? Let's face it, the Vikings top coverage men – Farwell, Kenny Onatolu, Jamarca Sanford, Eric Frampton, Husain Abdullah – don't contribute a lot on defense or offense, so the team would be sacrificing little there if they take the likely path of keeping Lloyd and releasing another position player that really doesn't actually play much more than to cover a handful of kicks every game.
"Rhys is a good guy and we both understand the business. We didn't ask to be in this predicament, but at the same time we both have jobs to do," Longwell said. "I feel like for the four years I've been here, I've done everything I'm supposed to do and then some and performed well. So I'm not really concerned about employment, so to speak. It's just that you want to be able to go out there and do what you do to the best of your ability. You want all the tools to be able to do that."
Longwell has been one of the game's most reliable kickers … on field goals. He doesn't have anything to be worried about when it comes to his employment this year. But the Vikings want all the tools to win a game, and field position goes a long way in accomplishing that.
The best-case scenario is that this is a hidden blessing for Longwell – Lloyd pins the opposition deep, the defense holds and the Vikings have more scoring opportunities by taking possession of the ball closer to midfield.
In reality, the presence of a younger kickoff specialist really shouldn't be concerning for a reliable, 14-year field goal kicker.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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