Kickoffs in the NFL are going to look different this season.
No one knows how exactly. But they’ll be different.
Owners recently approved several changes, ostensibly to reduce collisions. Among the changes:
• The kickoff team must line up with five players on each side of the ball.
• Players on the kickoff team must wait until the ball is kicked before they can start running down the field.
• Eight players on the return team must line up in a 15-yard setup zone before kickoff.
• Players on the return team cannot initiate blocks in the 15-yard zone beyond the point from which the ball will be kicked. Usually, that zone will be between the kicking team’s 35-yard line and the 50.
• Players on the return team are no longer allowed to form two-man “wedge” (or shoulder-to-shoulder) blocks.
How will all of this affect the Bucs?
I don’t take the changes as a sign that the NFL has moved a step closer toward eliminating kickoffs. There are too many people across the league who feel it’s an essential part of the game, including Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has called it one of the most exciting plays in football.
We’ve seen this routine before. Remember when the NFL moved kickoff touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25 before the 2016 season? In theory, that was supposed to discourage returners from running kicks out of the end zone. Instead, we’ve seen teams place high arcing kicks just shy of the end zone in hopes of tackling the returner before he can reach the 25. The frequency of kickoff returns hasn’t declined at all. It has stayed at 40 percent.
The last thing the NFL wants to do is make a play less exciting. Consider what commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2014 about the extra point, which then was an 18-yard kick: “The extra point is almost automatic. I believe we had five missed extra points this year out of 1,200 some odd (attempts). So it’s a very small fraction of the play, and you want to add excitement with every play.”
The league has sold these changes as a way to increase player safety. But it has another motive: to increase scoring. Scoring dropped last season to its lowest point since 2009. Expect more returns and more room for returners to run. It’s a win-win for the NFL. It gets to champion safety while making games more exciting.
That players on the kickoff team can no longer get a running start before a kick is no small change. At peak speed, the fastest returners can cover almost 10 yards in a second. And now, because of the five-men-on-each-side-of-the-ball requirement, kickoff teams won’t be able to overload one side of the field, which could open up running lanes for returners.
All of this means that the teams that have speedy returners might hold a potentially game-changing advantage. Over the past 10 seasons, teams that have returned a kickoff for a touchdown have won 62 percent of the time.
Look at what the Patriots did during the offseason. A few days after they lost their returner — running back Dion Lewis — in free agency, they acquired receiver Cordarrelle Patterson from the Raiders. And all it took to get him was a late-round draft pick swap.
Coincidence? Doubtful. The Patriots might have just found a new rule to exploit, and Patterson is the perfect player to help them do it. He has led the NFL in kick return average in three of the past five seasons. He would have finished first last season (28.3 yards), but he fell just short of the number of returns needed to qualify as a leader. Since 2013, he has returned five kickoffs for touchdowns. No one else has returned more than two. During an appearance on Good Morning Football, Patterson, a former first-round pick, said that Belichick told him, “We’re going to make you the player you should be.”
One of the reasons Belichick is such a staunch supporter of kick returns is that his special teams units have given the Patriots an edge over opponents for years. New England’s special teams have ranked in the top eight of Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings eight straight seasons. The value isn’t just in field goals made or punts dropped inside the 20. Because of the Patriots’ success returning kickoffs and limiting opponents’ returns, they’re able to control field position. When their offense takes possession, it often has a shorter distance to travel to score points. When opposing offenses take possession, they often have a longer distance to travel.
What did the Bucs do after the NFL approved the rule changes? The next day they signed Bernard Reedy, who played in nine games for them last season. In those games, he returned seven kickoffs for an average of 20.7 yards. In Week 3 against the Vikings, he returned a kickoff 50 yards. Reedy’s not a lock to make the regular-season roster, but his return experience should help his chances. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers also returned kickoffs last season.
As far as kickoff coverage, that’s an area where the Bucs must improve. Opponents gained 24.8 yards per return last season, the third-highest average. Injuries and a lack of depth, especially toward the end of the season, were partly to blame for the large returns the Bucs surrendered, but the biggest reason was their kicker. Patrick Murray was reliable on field goals and extra points, but he didn’t have the leg for kickoffs and didn’t consistently generate enough hang time to allow the Bucs’ coverage unit to get down the field.
Their new kicker, Chandler Catanzaro, should be an upgrade in that regard. If the rule changes do in fact open up the return game, my guess is that the Bucs will be content to kick the ball deep into the end zone and settle for opponents taking possession at the 25. Only 23.7 percent of Murray’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback last season, while 63.4 percent of Catanzaro’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.