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Thursday, June 3, 2010
Icing the kicker in Minnesota

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

In an extensive interview Wednesday with Twin Cities reporters -- detailed by the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and 1500ESPN.com -- Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Ryan Longwell made clear he was surprised and disappointed when the team signed kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Longwell said he considers himself "at the peak of what I've done," questioned the connection between long kickoffs and victories and said he has often used kickoffs to test wind conditions for late-game field goals.

Ryan Longwell
Ryan Longwell had the second-lowest gross average on kickoffs in the league last season.
"Certainly, I've never seen a touchback win a game at the end," Longwell said.

As a group, the Vikings' kickoff team made substantial improvements last season. So what happened here? Longwell, 35, had the most accurate season of his career in 2009 while handling both jobs. If you didn't know any better, you would think that the Vikings -- hamstrung by the Final Eight rule and carrying a mostly established roster -- could find nothing better to do this winter than mess around with the kicker.

I can't rule out that explanation; layers of personnel staffers can sometimes overthink ways to improve a team. But thanks to our friends at Football Outsiders, I think we can come up with a pretty reasonable explanation for why the Vikings took a shot at Longwell's professional pride to bring in Lloyd.

Among the special-teams statistics tracked by Football Outsiders is "gross value" of kickoffs. It measures where a kickoff lands relative to the NFL average. Return yardage isn't included. The comprehensive list will be available in Football Outsiders' annual almanac, due out July 6, but president Aaron Schatz advised me that Longwell had the NFL's second-lowest gross value on his kickoffs last season. Lloyd, on the other hand, had the league's second-highest gross average while handling kickoffs for the Carolina Panthers.

Longwell would point out the Vikings' shift to a directional kickoff style last season, one that emphasizes placement over distance. But generally speaking, I think most teams would prefer longer kickoffs over accurate placement.

The question comes down to whether Lloyd's expected increase in distance is worth the potential impact it could have on Longwell's field goal accuracy. There should be none, and I don't think there will be any. Longwell is a pro and isn't likely to allow hurt feelings to cloud his performance.

But I'm also reminded of the common concern in baseball: That a slugger will have trouble shifting from a full-time position player to designated hitter. In sports, unintended consequences are always possible.

So what to do with this? We're already planning to track the Chicago Bears' short-range pass defense and the Detroit Lions' downfield pass defense. So why not add Minnesota's kickoffs to the list, tying it in with Longwell's field goal accuracy? OK, it's a deal.