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, of course, Longwell would become the all-time leading scorer in Packers history 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 longshot, 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 a Pro Football Hall of Famer for resurrecting the downtrodden Packers franchise, had just built a roster that’d 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 added 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 ended up working. It became apparent that Conway didn’t have what it took. He struggled terribly in camp and preseason before straining his quadriceps. Longwell was terrific and held the job for the next nine years, even 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.
“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...That’s the whole thing about the NFL — managing your misses and keeping those within a percentile that they’re manageable.”
‘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.
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.
However 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 last of his six years on the job; Jake Schum in 2016; Justin Vogel last year) and new 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’s pretty cool-headed, I think the big tests will be when we get into the season. Just continually adjusting, being ahead of it. But I see very positive things and we’ll continue to have conversations. He asks a lot of questions. Always wanting to learn, always wanting to find ways to get better.”
Some of that might come from Scott’s upbringing. The son of an accomplished athlete himself — former University of Wisconsin track star Kim Scott — he 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.
“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. “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.”