When Ryan Longwell crossed the border in 2006, signing a free agent contract with the Vikings after nine seasons kicking with the rival Packers, he knew exactly why Minnesota had pursued him.
"The reason Minnesota came hard after me, and they told me this, was not anything other than: 'We have been through a Rolodex of kickers and we want stability,'" Longwell said.
Longwell provided exactly that for six seasons, calming a position that had been a calamity. Already an accurate kicker, Longwell made 86% of his tries from 2006-11 before giving way to rookie Blair Walsh in 2012.
The Vikings have enjoyed periods of stability at the position since then — mixed with periods of volatility. They cut Walsh in 2016 after some extreme highs and lows, had Kai Forbath for the rest of that season and 2017, drafted Daniel Carlson in 2018 only to cut him after a dreadful game in Green Bay early his rookie season and added Dan Bailey to replace him.
Bailey seemed to have ushered in another era of relative calm — seemingly solidifying his standing in 2019 by making 27 of 29 field goals and maintaining his place among the NFL's 10 most accurate kickers in history.
But seven missed kicks in the last two games — three extra points and four field goals — have thrust Bailey and the Vikings' history of kicking woes into the spotlight yet again.
It left fans (and perhaps even teammates and coaches) wondering: What the heck is going on? How did this happen, especially to a veteran like Bailey? And most importantly, should he get a chance to work himself out of this funk?
In a phone interview on Monday, Longwell — almost as good talking about kicking as he was at the craft itself — offered up a mixture of explanation, kicking nuance and advice (for both Bailey and the Vikings).
First off: How the heck does a kicker get in a funk, and how can he get out of it?
Well, that's easy — even for a veteran like Bailey, Longwell said.
"It's not hard. One kick becomes two. After two, you're wondering where the ball is going," Longwell said. "We all go through that."
Getting out of it sounds just as easy.
"The key is do you have sort of root basics for your own style, whatever that is, that you can always go back to?" Longwell said. "No matter if you've made 20 in a row or missed three in a row, is there something you have that can set you straight — whether it's a technique or something to get you in rhythm. Do you have that, and does it work?"
For Longwell, that ace in the hole happened to be ... watching a video of Lions kicker Jason Hanson? Have to admit, I wasn't expecting that. But watching two or three reps of the head position of Hanson — who kicked for 21 seasons in Detroit — almost always got Longwell back in his groove, he said.
But kicking is as much a physical grind as a mental one.
"The hardest thing is when you aren't quite feeling it. Do you still have the faith in yourself and the freedom to swing away?" Longwell said. "Anyone can swing away when you've made 10 in a row. But can you when it's not quite coming off your foot the right way?"
So what's wrong with Bailey?
Longwell lives in San Diego but is still invested in the NFL and Vikings. He didn't watch the Jacksonville game in which Bailey missed three kicks but rallied to make the game-winner in overtime. But Longwell heard about Bailey's struggles and was curious enough to watch Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
"Dan is a great kicker. The guy has been money for so many years, not just with the Cowboys, but making so many in a row with the Vikings," Longwell said. "You see one kick left and three right. I see it as one issue. He's a little out of position at the ball. It's easily fixable."
If that last term gave you comparative nightmares to Christian Ponder's "easily correctable" mistakes, allow Longwell to soothe you by bringing up ... Carlson, the rookie the Vikings cut after two games and three bad misses in Green Bay?
"It's a similar problem to what Daniel Carlson had in that game against the Packers," Longwell said. "It's fixable physically."
Longwell said he reached out to the Vikings after Carlson's nightmare game suggesting that very thing and offered to straighten him out. Minnesota, which had Super Bowl goals, decided sticking with a shaky rookie was too risky and opted instead for Bailey.
Carlson was scooped up by the Raiders and has made all but two of his field goal attempts this season — proof that what has been lost can be found.
Creatures of rhythm and habit
Longwell did say that the Vikings' midyear switch at long snapper, from Austin Cutting to Andrew DePaola, was a "red flag" for him.
When Longwell signed with the Vikings, for instance, he said it took several weeks of training camp and the early part of the 2006 season before he was in a rhythm with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and holder Chris Kluwe. And they maintained that with meticulous preparation.
"With Cullen, I wanted him in practice to set the ball down like a ref would, spin it like he would on a gameday and do it just like he would on gameday," Longwell said. "I wanted the entire operation to be exactly the same. When we got into the third or fourth week of the first year, you could time the whole operation with a stopwatch within a tenth of a second every time."
Longwell attributes much of his success with the Vikings to the fact that Loeffler and Kluwe were part of the three-man kicking operation for all six years he was here. Longwell's worst season in the NFL, when he made just 20 of 31 field goals for the Packers in 2001, came after a switch at holder.
DePaolo seems to be doing a fine job, and Bailey made all eight of his kicks in the first two games he snapped. But it's possible there are some kinks to work out in the routine.
"It's all about the rhythm. If that's off, the wholeoperation goes down," Longwell said. "When you make a change in snapper or holder, it's not that he can't get the ball back faster or more accurately. The whole thing is the rhythm of the operation. That routine."
Long story short: Keep Bailey
Longwell uses Carlson as a cautionary tale for those who would give up on Bailey after two bad games.
"Daniel has been great with the Raiders," Longwell said. "You always have to wonder: Is the grass greener making a change?"
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was noncommittal about keeping Bailey when asked Monday, but Bailey does remain on the roster — for now.
Part of it comes down to timing. With just three games left in the regular season, most teams are set at kicker. And adding players in a time of COVID can be tricky.
"I don't think there's a better option out there," Longwell said. "I think you ride with Dan, first off. You trust his history over a quick fix. I do think he can pull out of this. I would trust him over anyone else at this point."
But Longwell does have two bits of advice for Bailey — from one kicker who made 86% of his field goals with the Vikings to another who has made 86% of his field goals in his career.
"If I was standing next to him, there are two things I would do: Look at his alignment and adjust his head position to be a little more on top of the ball," Longwell said. "I don't think he's aiming where he thinks he's aiming. His head is a little far back. It results in a ball that starts right and goes right. Or a hit off the ground that shoots right. And then the miss left is the overcompensation. It's a simple fix. It's a quick fix. But it has to be carefully done."