Longwell not ready to relinquish Vikings kickoffs

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ryan Longwell might be in a job share for his 14th NFL season. He’s not eager to let go of his kickoff responsibility for Minnesota, though.

For Longwell, being full time is a benefit and not a hindrance to performance.

“It wasn’t like I asked to not do it, and it’s not like I prefer not doing it,” Longwell said recently. “Definitely something that I never had to deal with before.”

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The Vikings signed specialist Rhys Lloyd to a two-year contract in March worth more than $1.1 million. He’s not guaranteed a spot on the team, but Lloyd has one of the league’s strongest legs. With the Carolina Panthers, he led the NFL with 30 touchbacks in 2008 and was tied for fourth with 21 last season.

Longwell was second in the NFL in field-goal percentage last year, making 26 of 28 kicks, but he had only five touchbacks, 23rd in the league. Part of that low total stems from a directional strategy the Vikings used last season, but their opponents averaged starting at the 28-yard line after kickoffs, also 23rd in the NFL.

In the NFC championship loss to New Orleans, the average post-kickoff starting position for the Vikings was their 21-yard line. The Saints averaged starting at the 34, a precious advantage in a tight game like that.

Still, Longwell was noticeably stronger kicking off than in each of the previous two years. Complemented by stronger coverage from the kickoff team, the Vikings looked a lot better in that phase of the game last season.

“I feel like I’m at the peak of what I’ve done, and last year kicking off I thought I did exactly what our plan was and what they asked me to do,” Longwell said. “We’ll see how it plays out.”

Asked if he thought his leg could be stronger late in the season by skipping the kickoffs, Longwell expressed skepticism but acknowledged the unknown. His biggest concern is feeling stale for important field goals, particularly on the road when the Vikings aren’t playing in the steady comfort of their dome.

Longwell pointed to a game-tying 41-yarder he made in late December at Chicago in the fourth quarter. The wind was blowing hard from left to right throughout the night, but after watching the way the ball traveled during his kickoffs he realized the adjustment wasn’t that simple. He aimed accordingly on the field goal and made it.

“It’s a tool that I’ve always used, so obviously we’ll have to cross that road when we get there,” Longwell said.

Though no disrespect to Lloyd, Longwell also noted the value of those regular-season roster spots and the relative luxury it is for an NFL team to carry an extra kicker.

“I know there’s a huge difference between 80 guys and 45 guys, and we’re a long ways a way from 45 guys,” Longwell said.

Longwell is in the final season of the five-year contract he got from the Vikings in 2006. The team paid him a $500,000 roster bonus in March, the same day he learned of their interest in Lloyd.

“I’m not going to tell you that Ryan Longwell will never kickoff,” head coach Brad Childress said. “He’s going to have to keep that club sharp in his bag as well. Rhys Lloyd was brought in with a specific idea in mind, but … you have to come out and perform.”

The golf analogy is appropriate, because Longwell is good at that too, living along the same course as Tiger Woods and other famous people. Spurred in part by the Lloyd news, a realization that NFL lives don’t last forever, Longwell tried to qualify for the U.S. Open last month. He didn’t make the cut, but his 0.4 handicap gives him hope of a future career in another sport.

“It’s all timing and rhythm and your hip rotation, which is like kicking a field goal,” Longwell said.