The Vikings last week released veteran kicker Dan Bailey, setting in motion once again a kicking carousel that has been spinning many times over the last several years.
Why do some teams struggle to find stability on special teams while others thrive? What can the Vikings do to find that coveted stability?
To help answer those questions, I talked to former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell on Thursday's Daily Delivery podcast. Longwell presided over perhaps the most stable era of kicking in Vikings history, making 86% of his field goals during his six seasons here from 2006-11 — all while having the same long snapper (Cullen Loeffler) and holder (punter Chris Kluwe) for all six years.
If you don't see the podcast player, click here to listen.
Here are some of the main insights from Longwell:
*When examining struggles in the kicking game, don't just look at the kicker.
A recurring theme during Longwell's appearance was how important rhythm and continuity are in the kicking game — and how small differences with snappers and holders can be a big deal. He repeatedly pointed to how important it was in his career to have one snapper (Rob Davis) for nine years in Green Bay plus one snapper and one holder (Loeffler and Kluwe) for his six years in Minnesota.
Since then for the Vikings? Kluwe held for Blair Walsh in 2012, Walsh's rookie year and arguably his best season. Loeffler was still the snapper. Since 2012, the Vikings have had a revolving door at kicker, punter (often the holder) and long snapper.
Jeff Locke was here from 2013-16 as punter and holder, including on Walsh's infamous miss in the 2015 playoffs that started the carousel in earnest. Since then, Ryan Quigley (2017), Matt Wile (2018) and Britton Colquitt (2019-20) have held those roles.
Loeffler was the long snapper through 2014. Since then, the Vikings have employed Kevin McDermott, Jeff Overbaugh (late 2017 after McDermott was injured), Austin Cutting and Andrew DePaola as long snappers. DePaola replaced Cutting midyear in 2020.
Walsh kicked until midway through 2016. Kai Forbath was here for the rest of that season and 2017. Daniel Carlson was cut two games into 2018, giving way to Bailey, and now a new kicker in 2021.
"When I signed the whole thing was stability," Longwell said. "Since then, and especially since Blair's miss in the playoffs, it's been ride the hot hand as long as you can, and the second that hot hand goes you look for something else. It's a dangerous way to approach it.
"There are reasons a guy like Dan Bailey goes from making 10, 15 or 20 kicks in a row to missing. The change of long snappers last year was so blatantly obvious to me. Anyone who has been between the hashes knows that you can have two snappers, both throw perfect spirals, laces forward, 12 o'clock, no spin, exactly the same thing, and on camera and for the untrained eye you can't tell them apart. But if one of them is two-tenths of a second faster or slower than what you are used to, the whole rhythm of the operation is off."
Longwell gave a parallel example: How frequently we see a center get injured or replaced midgame and then a fumbled exchange between the quarterback and new center follows shortly thereafter.
"This isn't just a one-off of 'it's Kai Forbath, or it's Blair Walsh or it's Ryan Longwell or it's Dan Bailey.' It's an entire operation," Longwell said. "How are we practicing? How efficient are we? Are we approaching it the right way?"
What does stable kicking mean to a team?
I mentioned to Longwell that in playoff seasons under Mike Zimmer, Vikings kickers have made 88% of their field goals. In years they have missed the playoffs under Zimmer, that number has dipped to 75%.
Having a kicking operation you can count on makes everyone's job easier.
"It's not something you have to worry about. That is a bigger factor than anyone will admit to," Longwell said. "Your kicking game can steal you wins. That can take a so-so team and make them better than they should be. You can take a great team and help them steal games where they lay an egg. ... If you don't have it? Everyone is tight. The coach is tight. The GM is tight. Players play tight."
So how can the Vikings find stability?
Short answer: Commit to a long-term plan that might involve short-term pain. The Vikings seemed to be trying to do that in 2018 when they drafted Carlson, but they were coming off an NFC title game appearance and had Super Bowl aspirations. When Carlson missed three field goals in Week 2 at Lambeau Field, they cut him — and he went to the Raiders, where he has thrived.
"If it was me, I would find a snapper and a holder and a kicker and a six-year plan," Longwell said, adding that the kicker could either be a young guy trying to emerge or a more seasoned player looking for a second chance. "Not to throw salt in the wound, but what they did with Daniel Carlson … (say) this guy is so good we are going to ride with him. There is going to be a Green Bay Lambeau Field day that's going to cost us a win.
"But you know what? We're going to pat him on the back and say that's not acceptable but you are our guy. You are our holder. You are our punter and you are our snapper, and we are going to ride. We know that when it clicks, whether it's halfway through the season, whether it's in training camp or whether it's next year, this whole conversation is over for the next 5-6 years. And you just approach it that way."