At the NFL Owners Meetings in New Orleans on Tuesday, the owners voted to change the rules regarding kickoffs. The Competition Committee had expressed concern about the safety of players and that too many injuries were occurring on kickoffs.
The NFL Competition Committee, head coaches, the team owners and special teams coaches were all involved in discussions to reach a league-wide consensus. To reach any kind of a consensus and the NFL in the same sentence seems to be a challenge these days.
But, as a result of all the feedback and debating, the NFL agreed to make the following changes. Kickoffs will be moved from the 30-yard line to the 35. If there is a touchback, the ball will come out to the 20 yard line as before.
The returning team will be allowed to keep their two-man wedge. But the defending team will have to start their forward run from the 30, as opposed to 10 yards away from the ball.
The extra five yards apparently allowed for greater speed, greater impact and consequently more injuries.
So how does this change impact the game, and how does it impact specific NFL teams? What about kickoff strategies and personnel changes? We will attempt to address all these issues in this article.
From a comparison standpoint, the NFL used to kick the ball off from the 35-yard line from 1974-93. The last year of that era, the NFL saw 27 percent of all kickoffs result in a touchback. There were only four kickoffs returned for a touchdown for the entire year.
Compare that to the 2010 season. The NFL saw 23 kicks returned for a touchdown, with only 16 percent resulting in touchbacks. The NFL game as we know it, will have to be less exciting as a result, as the kickoff return play can be an instant game changer.
Several interesting things may come about as teams try to figure out the best way to cope with the new rules. One option is to find the longest kicker available, and employ him to drill the ball out of the back of the end zone as often as he can.
That way, you would have the opponents start every drive after a score at the 20, and you gladly take your chances from there.
The next thought is that if you are kicking off from the 35-yard line, you might see an increase in onside kick attempts. The ball has to travel at least 10 yards before it is touched. By the time it has been deflected and bounces around, it is probably closer to the midfield stripe.
From Advanced NFL Stats.com, consider that surprise onside kicks are recovered 71 percent of the time. Overall onside kicks result in a successful recovery 26 percent of the time. Those seem like reasonable odds for the difference of 30 yards (from midfield to the 20).
Another option would be the pooch kick. If you try a few onside kicks earlier in the season you get teams moving up closer to the 45, and then drop the ball in over their heads, where you hope to get a good bounce of the ball and pick up a cheap recovery or two.
From special teams coaches, to special teams personnel, this rule change could have an impact on a number of people in the NFL. For players who made rosters primarily due to their kick-coverage skills, this change may make them a moot point.
If you have a kicker who can kick the ball out of the back of the end zone, why do you need to tie up a roster spot for a player that doesn't have any involvement in any plays?
Many special-teams aces, commonly known as the gunners, might find they have very little impact on the game, even to the extent that they might lose their jobs.
You may also see teams employ one field goal kicker, and based on the percentage of times he kicks the ball through the end zone from the 30, go out and employ a specialist just to handle the kickoff duties.
Teams may also only employ just one special teams coach to handle the punt team, as kickoff team coverage may become far less crucial to the outcome of a game.
Some teams currently employ multiple special-teams coaches. Then there are some teams that have special-teams walls on the sidelines, but that is a different story for another day.
As one could expect, the immediate reaction to the rule change by the kick returners was less than positive. This rule change will mean fewer returns, less of an impact on the game itself, and a less significant role on the team.
One of potential result of the rule change, will be that overly-confident kick off returners will bring the ball out of the end zone, unless the ball is kicked completely out of the end zone. That is because there were seven touchdowns that resulted in kick off returns that were greater than 100 yards last season.
They were: 105 yards - Stefan Logan (Detroit). 103 yards - Brandon Tate (New England) and David Reed (Baltimore). 102 yards - La Rod Stephens-Howling (Arizona) and Eric Weems (Atlanta). 101 yards - Leon Washington (Seattle) and Jacoby Ford (Oakland).
This group of players all scored from at least 95 yards out in 2010, so might they be tempted to try their luck from over 100 yards as well?
They were: 98 yards - Marc Mariani (Tennessee). 97 yards - Brad Smith (New York Jets) and Cassius Vaughn (Denver). 96 yards - Brandon Banks (Washington). 95 yards - C.J. Spiller (Buffalo) and Percy Harvin (Minnesota).
Out of all the college players who are preparing for the 2011 NFL Draft, the return specialists are the guys who expect to see their overall value downgraded due to the probability of fewer kickoff returns.
Right away, you think of great return men, such as Patrick Peterson of LSU and Jacquizz Rogers of Oregon State.
The rule change will not diminish Peterson's value as a punt returner.
But in the kicking game, consider that Peterson averaged 29.1 yards a kick return, and picked up 932 yards in returns last year for LSU, which was good for 11th place in the NCAA.
Other draft-eligible players who had noteworthy numbers as a kick returner are: Joe Lefeged, Rutgers cornerback; Jerrel Jernigan, Troy wide receiver; and Jeremy Kerley, TCU wide receiver.
While Peterson still can count on a high draft selection due to his outstanding level of play in the secondary, the other players may see their draft value drop a full round due to the decrease in importance of the return game.
If you consider that there were 10 NFL teams that allowed an average of at least 24 yards per kickoff return, then you could easily make a case for them to employ one long-range kicker who boots it out of the end zone, which requires less special teams coverage specialists to employ. Call it Economics 102.
The 10 teams that might benefit the most from this rule change that were giving up the most return yards per average return last year were:
Baltimore (26.0 average return), Indianapolis (25.8), Tennessee (24.8), Denver (24.7), Miami (24.6), Dallas (24.3), Arizona (24.2), Houston (24.1), New Orleans (24.1) and Minnesota (23.9).
The funny thing is that Indianapolis, Dallas, Arizona, Houston, New Orleans and Minnesota are all benefiting from playing their home games in a domed stadium or with a retractable roof to keep the elements out of the game, and to help to deflate the overall return yardage.
On the flip side, there were only four teams that kept returns below 20 yards a return, so this rule change actually hurts them. Those four teams were Cleveland (17.8), Washington (19.0), New York Jets (19.6) and New York Giants (19.7).
These teams might still focus on kicks that come down right to the goal line or the 1-yard line and try to pin opponents behind the 20-yard line due to their superior kickoff coverage units.
How big of an impact is this rule? Consider that anytime somebody returns the ball for a touchdown, it is an electrifying play. It is like giving a shot of adrenaline to the entire team.
It is an instantaneous momentum changer, and if it happens in the fourth quarter, can change the outcome of a game.
There were only 13 teams in the NFL in 2010 that were able to prevent any kickoff returns for touchdowns, so let's take a second to give each of those teams there just due:
New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.
With the percentage of touchbacks undoubtedly rising, that means fewer returns, and as a result less return yardage. When it comes time for any return specialist to renegotiate their contracts, you can bet that teams will be pointing to less yardage means less pay.
Exactly half of the 32 NFL teams were able to boast of a return man that broke the 1,000-yard barrier in kickoff returns in 2010. These 16 returners were obviously not thrilled with the new rule change:
La Rod Stephens-Howling - Arizona (1540 yards), Marc Mariani - Tennessee (1530), Leon Washington - Seattle (1461), Stefan Logan - Detroit (1448), Brad Smith - New York Jets (1432), Jacoby Ford - Oakland (1280), Darren Sproles - San Diego (1257), Bernard Scott - Cincinnati (1257), Deji Karim - Jacksonville (1248), Brandon Banks - Washington (1155), Danny Amendola - St. Louis (1142), Michael Spurlock - Tampa Bay (1129), Eric Weems - Atlanta (1100), Brandon Tate - New England (1057), Mike Goodson - Carolina (1034) and C.J. Spiller - Buffalo (1014).
As we detailed in the beginning, the last time that the NFL kicked off from the 35 yard line, which was in 1993, there were only four touchdown returns for the entire season.
Are athletes bigger and faster now than they were 18 years ago? I would have to think that is the case. But, on the other hand, it is also safe to assume that kickers are bigger and stronger as well, and can kick the ball further.
That brings us to the moment of truth for kickers, when the returner has broken through the wall of defenders and he comes face-to-face with the kicker. Sometimes they make the play, and sometimes they don't.
In this instance, we have New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski faced with the challenge of trying to tackle Buffalo Bills rookie C.J. Spiller. For the end result, go to the next slide.
If you guessed touchdown for C.J. Spiller, you were correct. Here is the rundown of the 23 touchdown returns last year, including one strange return TD.
3 return touchdowns - Leon Washington (Seattle) and Jacoby Ford (Oakland)
2 return touchdowns - LaRod Stephens-Howling (Arizona), Brandon Tate (New England) and Brad Smith (New York Jets)
1 return touchdown - Stefan Logan (Detroit), Eric Weems (Atlanta), David Reed (Baltimore), Marc Mariani (Tennessee), Brandon Banks (Washington), C.J. Spiller (Buffalo), Percy Harvin (Minnesota), Cassius Vaughn (Denver), Michael Spurlock (Tampa Bay) and Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh).
As promised, the strangest kick return touchdown of the year award goes to linebacker Tyjuan Hagler of Indianapolis, who returned a onside kick attempt 41 yards for a touchdown. That kind of play could still happen with the new rule change, so all hope is not lost.
George Blanda, a throwback to the old AFL, was one month shy of turning 49 when he retired as a NFL kicker. Morten Anderson was 48 when he announced his retirement.
When you hit 40, isn't it fair to assume that there isn't as much life left in your legs? Or, in the case of Morten Anderson, it was his knees that forced him to hang it up.
Looking over the rosters of every NFL team, there is currently only one clear cut 40-something that is still serving as the sole kicker for their team. That is John Kasay, 41, for the Carolina Panthers.
Jason Hanson, 40, kicks for the Detroit Lions, but due to his injury, they also have Dave Rayner, and tendered him an offer, so that situation is still up in the air.
Next we move to the 30-something crowd. There are currently 18 NFL kickers in the 30-39 age range.
Rian Lindell, 34 - Buffalo, Shayne Graham, 33, New England, Sebastian Janikowski, 33, Oakland, Billy Cundiff, 30, Baltimore, Phil Dawson, 36, Cleveland, Neil Rackers, 34, Houston, Adam Vinatieri, 38, Indianapolis, Rob Bironas, 33, Tennessee, Jay Feely, 34, Arizona, Matt Bryant, 35, Atlanta, Kris Brown, 34, Dallas, Ryan Longwell, 36, Minnesota, Lawrence Tynes, 32, New York Giants, David Akers, 36, Philadelphia, Joe Nedney, 37, San Francisco, Jeff Reed, 31, San Francisco, Olindo Mare, 37, Seattle and Josh Brown, 31, St. Louis.
By the looks of this list, it seems that kickers are lasting longer in the league. The advancements in sports medicine, workout techniques and weight training unique to kickers are helping them to preserve their careers longer than before.
Perhaps shortening the kickoff five yards may actually prolong some of the above kickers' careers even longer.
It is one thing to kick a field goal in snow, it is something else to conduct a proper kickoff in snow. Kicking in to a howling wind, that can often hit the stadiums surrounding the Great Lakes, is something that kickers will still have to deal with.
Kicking off in rainy conditions, when you don't have the best footing to work with, will continue to be an issue as well.
For teams that play their home games in domed stadiums, this rule change is practically a slam dunk. The visiting team might as well game plan to begin every drive on the 20 yard line.
Without facing any elements, the domed teams should be nailing almost every kickoff out of the end zone. If they don't you would have to wonder why they didn't pursue a kicker who could.
The other factor is that you might see fewer holding penalties on kickoff returns, because if there are becoming fewer and fewer kick returns, why would a special teams coach risk having one of his blockers get flagged for a holding call, when you were going to start the drive at the 20-yard line anyway?
That would be the most embarrassing special teams highlight in 2011. The ball sails out the back of the end zone, and a team is called for holding, and starts the drive at the 10-yard line.
The question is which will we see more. Starting drives at the 10, or kickoffs returned for a touchdown?
So there you have it, we have explored the strategies, the return men, the kickers and the teams that will benefit and be potentially hurt by the rule change.
From better or worse starting field position, to seeing more onside kicks, and fewer returns for touchdowns, the NFL Competition Committee has left its impact on the 2011 season.
Next question is, will there be a 2011 season? Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants?