GREEN BAY — Ryan Longwell could tell immediately.
It was the summer of 1997, and he was an unknown, undrafted rookie free agent, having been claimed on waivers by the Green Bay Packers from the San Francisco 49ers by general manager Ron Wolf not long before training camp kicked off.
Years later, Longwell would become the Packers’ all-time leading scorer and one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL — despite spending much of his career kicking in the unkind elements of Lambeau Field.
Then, though, he was a long shot, a training camp leg who wasn’t even really competition for the guy everyone assumed would be the Packers’ kicker — Brett Conway.
Wolf, who would go on to be enshrined as a Pro Football Hall of Famer for resurrecting the downtrodden Packers franchise, had just built a roster filled with players who had won Super Bowl XXXI the year before. But he’d taken an uncharacteristic risk in the third round of the NFL draft, taking Conway out of Penn State to replace longtime kicker Chris Jacke, who’d left in free agency.
Why Wolf felt the need to pick up Longwell after making such a significant draft investment in Conway, no one can say. Wolf has always maintained he merely wanted some insurance. Longwell, who was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame last month, insists to this day that Wolf claimed him purely as a favor to his old friend and Longwell’s agent, Frank Bauer.
Whatever the reason, it was brilliant. Conway wound up cracking under the pressure of being such a high pick as a specialist, struggling terribly in camp and preseason before overkicking to the point of straining his quadriceps. Longwell was terrific and held the job for the next nine years, beating out Conway again in a head-to-head camp competition the following year.
“The only thing I can tell you is, the first time I met (Conway) in Green Bay, I called my dad and said, ‘I’ve got a chance at this job,’” Longwell recalled. “Because I just knew that just mentally, there was something that wasn’t there with Brett. I just knew that come crunch time, something was going to happen.”
Now, two decades later, the Packers have again invested a draft pick in a specialist — a fifth-rounder on Alabama punter JK Scott. The 6-foot-6, 208-pound 21-year-old has been impressive throughout camp, booming high, deep punts throughout the first 10 practices. But Longwell believes it won’t be Scott’s leg that decides his fate.
“I wasn’t the guy who could blast the ball out of the stadium, leg strength-wise. I had above-average talent, but to me, it was all mental. That was my strength,” Longwell said. “I think you can teach a lot of people how to kick, but to teach someone to be a kicker is a whole different animal. And that’s 80, 90 percent of it is mental. The ability to put the last one behind you, learn from it really quick and then have a clean slate on the next one.
“And to be honest, not everyone has that. There are kickers, I call them the ‘flash-in-the-pan’ guys, who last for a year or two but don’t have the long run of those type of guys who can come back and stay ‘Steady Eddie’ week in and week out.”
Longwell believes that the theory applies to both kickers and punters, and he has further evidence to support his hypothesis. Longwell had a front-row seat to the failed BJ Sander experiment, when coach/GM Mike Sherman traded up to select the Ohio State punter and Ray Guy Award winner in the third round of the 2004 NFL draft.
Sander was so bad that summer that the team had to sign veteran Bryan Barker to punt — while carrying Sander on the 53-man roster all year, too — and after struggling in 2005 (39.2-yard gross average, 33.9-yard net average on 64 punts), Sander was cut in August 2006. He never punted in the NFL again.
“I think the nature of being a draft pick leads you to want to swing harder — kick harder and higher and farther and faster than you normally would. So the ability to stay in rhythm and take it one kick at a time and just hit a clean ball — that’s easier said than done,” Longwell said. “But you don’t have to hit the home run every time. You’ve got to hit a clean ball.
“The NFL is just like the PGA Tour and tennis and everything else — it’s not about your good shots, it’s about your bad ones. Are my bad kicks good enough to stay on line and go through? And they were. And are my bad punts good enough to get the 42- to 45-yard fair catch? You don’t need the 57-yard, 5.0-(second) bomb every time. That’s the whole thing about the NFL — managing your misses and keeping those within a percentile that they’re manageable.”
Throughout practices, Scott’s bad punts have been rare. On 23 punts where he could swing away against the rush, he’s averaged 4.55 seconds of hang time and 53.1 yards per punt, unofficially.
In Thursday night’s preseason opener against Tennessee, Scott only got two chances to punt. His first, from the Packers’ 48-yard line, was a drop-kick that was intended to pin the Titans deep in their own territory. While the hang time was quite good (4.79 seconds), the ball only traveled 31 yards, giving the Titans the ball on their own 21.
But Scott’s second punt looked more like the ones he’s crushed in practice, carrying 52 yards with 4.75 seconds of hang time.
Special teams coordinator Ron Zook wasn’t surprised. While he knows not every Scott punt will be perfect, he believes his young player’s approach — and experience kicking for a national championship contender every year at Alabama — have prepared him for the mental rigors of the job.
“We won’t know until we get into (the regular season), but I’ll say this about him: He has not given me any indication that it’s going to be too big for him,” Zook said. “If you go back and you look at his college career, he’s played some pretty big games — as big he could’ve played in at this point in time. He’s not full of himself. He wants to be the best that he can be and he’s willing to do whatever he can.
“He may not punt every ball where we want it to go. But I’m excited about his future.”
‘Fear holds you back’
To his credit, Scott hasn’t taken a this-job-is-mine approach, despite not having any direct competition in camp. He knows that if he falters, there are plenty of out-of-work punters who are a phone call away. The Packers are about to have their fourth opening-day punter in four years (Tim Masthay in 2015, in the last of his six years on the job; Jake Schum in 2016; Justin Vogel last year) and GM Brian Gutekunst, who got his start in scouting under Wolf, believes in Wolf’s mantra about not living with mistakes.
But kicker Mason Crosby believes Scott’s approach will serve him well. Crosby, who passed Longwell as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and is entering his 12th season as the Packers’ kicker, said Scott operates like a veteran, not a rookie.
“Honestly, for a rookie, he has processes already in place — farther out than most rookies. He has a great plan every day as far as how he approaches stuff. So I think he’s coming in ahead of the game as far as his professionalism,” Crosby said. “It’s a long season, it’s a grind, so we’ll keep working together and making sure we’re having the conversations of how to handle it when it gets tough. He may have a bad day or something like that. Those are the times when it’s like, ‘All right, what are we going to see? How are you going to adjust?’”
The son of an accomplished athlete — former University of Wisconsin track star Kim Scott — Scott grew up in the Denver area, where his dad happened to befriend two ex-Broncos specialists: punter Tom Rouen, who spent 13 years in the NFL, and kicker David Treadwell, who spent six years in the league. Both taught him from a young age how vital the mental side of the game truly is, and his father also emphasized it. Scott also isn’t shy about talking about the influence his Christian faith impacts his approach.
“I’ll say this: Fear makes you into something that you weren’t supposed to be. Fear holds you back from who you’re supposed to be,” Scott said. “And I think in football, the biggest thing about the mental aspect is, guys get afraid to fail. Because of the stakes or what’s on the line. People are afraid to fail. (But) when you don’t have a fear of failure, you can go out and have fun. That’s the strongest I’ve ever been mentally, when I don’t have fear.”
“Mentally, you can definitely hold yourself back. To me, the mental aspect is as much if not more important as the physical. Guys get worried about the results. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m working at this, too — just like everybody else. Even the oldest guys in the NFL I’m sure are still working on their mental aspect. But guys worry about messing up and worry about what they might lose, and that’ll hold you back from being able to perform at the best of your ability. For me, when I’m performing my best is when I’m having fun. And if I have fear, I can’t have fun. So that’s the mentality I go with.”