Whether Ryan Longwell returns to the Vikings remains uncertain, but the veteran kicker believes there might have been some years added to his career this week when NFL owners passed a rule to move kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line.
The Vikings were among the teams to vote for a rule change that received 26 "yes" votes.
“Obviously, I was pretty excited when I heard about it," said the 36-year-old Longwell. "I think John Kasay [who is 41] actually put it best. He’s been trying to get to age 22 again all these years but he can’t, so moving it up 5 yards certainly kind of does that for you. All of a sudden the goal line is in reach to open up some strategy stuff that you can pad it in the end zone, you can kick it in the corner with some higher hang time and stuff the team down there. I was certainly excited about it. The way my career has gone, I’ve been blessed to play this long. I would think that this could give me some more years at the end of this.”
Longwell, who will be a free agent when the NFL's labor situation is settled, has been an extremely reliable field-goal kicker during his five seasons with the Vikings. He has made 43 of 46 attempts over the past two seasons, but has only eight touchbacks during that time. The Vikings went so far as to sign kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd last offseason, but ended up cutting him because they felt they couldn't justify keeping two kickers on the 53-man roster.
Now, Longwell finds himself in a position where it should be far easier to get the ball into the end zone. That fact alone would make one think the Vikings interest in retaining him would increase.
“We’ve been directional kicking, so it’s a little misleading with where it’s going to the corners," Longwell said of his kickoffs and where he felt he could put them from the 30-yard line. "I always felt that my normal ball I could get to the 1- or 2-yard line, when you’re swinging away down the middle and having decent hang time. When you move it up 5 yards, naturally you train a little different in the offseason to be able to hit the quote-unquote home run ball. It’s within range now. ... I’ve talked to a bunch of older kickers around the league in the last couple of days and we’re all kind of excited about it because naturally it helps us all.”
As for kickoff specialists, this change might not be the best for them. "I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m fighting a battle here," Longwell said. "But I think it makes teams think twice about it. There is no doubt from the 35-yard line, when you’re kicking in November and December, there’s still going to be a bunch of kicks that aren’t touchbacks. The percentages show that that’s going to be that way.
"The value of having a guy that could get it there from the 30, I’m not sure that you need to spend a spot on game day with a guy up doing that anymore. So I think what it does is it puts more emphasis on being a quality field-goal kicker that can hit at a high percentage. For guys like myself, John Kasay, [Adam] Vinatieri, Jason Hanson and our type of age guys. I think that’s a big part for us.”
One change that was taken out of the initial proposal was having touchbacks come out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20. Longwell said when he first saw that proposal he didn't think there would be more touchbacks, but rather coaches telling their kickers to boot high kicks with plenty of hang time that landed inside the 5-yard line. The thought process would have been coaches did not want to give up the field position and would rather try to trap a player near his end zone.
The proposed changes -- the two-man wedge will remain legal, but players on the coverage team can now only line up 5 yards from the ball so their running start isn't as great -- were done in the name of increasing safety and cutting down on high-impact collisions.
"This is about as close to a happy medium as you can get without flat out taking the [kickoff] out of the game," Longwell said.
Longwell fully understands that a guy like Chicago's standout return man Devin Hester isn't happy about this alteration but he also has seen plenty of rules go against kickers.
“I certainly feel like what they’re doing to Devin Hester with this rule is kind of what they did to us, moving it back to the 30 [from the 35 in 1994] and then moving to the ‘K’ ball," Longwell said. "Kind of all these rules that have been done over the years. To have a rule that looks like it goes in our favor is pretty exciting because there’s certainly been one after another that hasn’t gone that way over my 14 years.”