Every year, Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin puts together his special teams rankings of every team in the NFL for the past season. Gosselin's rankings are based on 22 measurable categories, and each team is assigned a score for each category. . .they get 1 if they're the best in that category, and 32 if they're last. So, obviously, the lower your particular score is, the better your special teams are.
The New England Patriots finished on the top of the heap this year with a total score of 269. The Vikings finished in a tie for 18th with the New Orleans Saints with 318 points overall. The team at the bottom, the San Diego Chargers, finished with an astounding 480.5 points. Anyone who saw the Chargers' special teams this year probably isn't surprised. . .the 2010 Chargers were to getting kicks blocked what the 2008 Vikings were to giving up punt return touchdowns.
While he doesn't list who finished where in each category, he does give the top and bottom scores for each, as well as where the Cowboys ranked (being the Dallas paper and all). The Vikings are listed as being at the top of one category and at the bottom of one category. . .and in that we can see the good and the bad of having a kicker like Ryan Longwell on the team.
The category that the Vikings finished on top of was field goal percentage, where Longwell's 94.4% success rate (he went 17-for-18 on the year, with the one miss a kick that clanged off the upright in Chicago) was the best in the NFL. That's what we expect from Longwell because. . .well, that's what Ryan Longwell does.
It's the category that the Vikings finished last in that may. . .may, mind you. . .spell the end of Longwell in Minnesota, and that's opponent's starting field position. According to Gosselin's rankings, the average drive for a Viking opponent (following a Minnesota score, presumably) started at the 30.8-yard line. By contrast, the team that ranked the best in that category was the Atlanta Falcons. . .the average drive for an Atlanta opponent started at the 22.2-yard line. That's nearly a full first down's worth of difference on every drive. When you have a defense that, for all their issues, was still in the top ten in the NFL in yardage allowed, having to gain an extra first down can be the difference between a touchdown and a field goal. . .or not getting any points at all.
It may be time for this team to seriously consider bringing in a kickoff specialist. . .or, as sacrilegious as it might be to say it, possibly moving on from Ryan Longwell all together. We know that Longwell's accuracy is unmatched in the NFL today, but the team needs to think about field position as well, particularly if they're going to be leaning heavily on the defense as a new quarterback and coach attempt to establish their offensive identities.