Longwell getting better with age

Kicker Ryan Longwell has gotten better every year with the Vikings. With Brett Favre leading a more potent offense, Longwell's scoring was also the highest of his career.

With all of the records and personal bests that Brett Favre helped set for Vikings offensive players last year, his value to the team was obvious. Sidney Rice had a breakout year. Adrian Peterson led the NFL in touchdowns with 18. Visanthe Shiancoe had a career year. Six different Vikings caught 40 or more passes. Favre himself set a personal best for passer rating over his 19-year Hall of Fame career. The numbers add up to be more than a little impressive.

But one player who flew a little under the radar last year was kicker Ryan Longwell, who, at age 35, is playing some of the best football of his life.

When the Vikings signed Longwell in 2006, they knew what they were getting. Allowed to leave Green Bay after having a rough season in which he made just 74 percent of his field goals (the second-worst season total of his career), he was signed by the Vikings and has spent the last four years making team history.

Prior to his disastrous 2005 season, Longwell had scored 104 or more points in each of his first eight seasons and had 120 or more in a whopping six of eight seasons – the most seasons of 120 points or more of any kicker during that span. Being on the back end of the high-powered Packers offense, Longwell was either kicking field goals or extra points at an amazing clip. However, when he came to the Vikings, he cemented his legacy as one of the game's great kickers.

Most players decline with age, but just the opposite has been true with Longwell. For his career, he has made 83 percent of his field goals – a number that has gone up every year since joining the Vikings. In those four years, Longwell has missed just 15 of 111 field goals and his year-by-year field goal percentages have all been above his career average (84.0, 83.3, 85.3, 92.9).

Perhaps the most impressive was when he was reunited with his old buddy Favre. For Longwell, there was nothing unlucky about his 13th season in the pros. He not only set a career high with 132 points, but set career marks for field goal percentage as well, making 26 of 28 field goal attempts (92.9 percent) – the first time in his career that he topped the 90 percent conversion rate.

Even more unlikely has been Longwell's long-distance accuracy. Known as a kicker who is all but automatic from inside 40 yards, his ability to make field goals from 50 yards or more wasn't assured by any stretch of the imagination. In his first 11 seasons, Longwell struggled from long distance, making just 14 of 28 kicks (50 percent) from 50 yards or more. Over the last two seasons, however, he has attempted eight field goals of 50 yards or more and made them all.

While Longwell has never been named the starting kicker for a Pro Bowl roster, his numbers have been good enough to earn the honor several times, especially in 2009 when he put up the best numbers of his career. Given that the Vikings would have had a shot at a 51- or 52-yard field goal to win the NFC Championship Game at New Orleans in January, there are a lot of people who believe that, if not for the 12-men-in-the-huddle gaffe that backed the Vikings up five yards, Longwell would have made the field goal that would have put the Vikings back in the Super Bowl for the first time in almost 35 years.

It didn't happen, but it doesn't diminish what Longwell was able to accomplish in 2009. At an age where most NFL players are working on their golf game (he's doing that too), not their NFL acumen, Longwell has proved that, like a vintage wine, he has grown better with age and is at the top of his game.

There will be games that will come down to the wire. Having a kicker like Longwell could be the difference between winning a division title or not, winning a playoff game or not and perhaps even winning a Super Bowl or not. While much of the focus will be on a certain 40-year-old quarterback, some of the credit deservedly belongs to a 35-year-old kicker who has done everything he can to get the Vikings where they long to be.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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