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Tampa Bay Buccaneers well-positioned for change in kickoffs

TAMPA — NFL exhibition games often aren't good indicators of what's to come in the regular season. Still, the Bucs and other teams were watching one particular aspect of the weekend's preseason games with keen interest.

The league's new kickoff rule, which now places the ball at the 35-yard line rather than the 30, had a noticeable impact on teams' kick returns. But the Bucs believe the changes will affect them positively.

Going into tonight's Jets-Texans game, 43 of 130 kickoffs (33 percent) resulted in touchbacks. Tampa Bay, with new kickoff specialist and punter Mike Koenen, had five of them (only the Redskins had as many). In 2010, just 16 percent of kickoffs leaguewide resulted in touchbacks.

"We had 20 percent of the (touchbacks) in the first couple days," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said before Saturday's games. "So I think our game looked different than most games.

"I'm hoping we're out of the norm. That's what I want to be."

He isn't alone.

There's another side to this story. The Bucs ranked seventh in the NFL with 24.3 yards per kick return in 2010 with three proven return men in Micheal Spurlock, Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter. Now, those players are left wondering what impact the rule change will have on their value.

"I know our guy, he was kicking that thing really well," Spurlock said. "But it's like a gift and a curse. Our guy's kickoffs are going to be a lot better. But on kickoff returns, well … "

Spurlock, who has been released by three teams in his career, can't ignore the obvious. Asked if the rule change will affect some players' job security, he said: "Most definitely. Why would you keep a guy if that's his job and it's not going to be beneficial to the team and you're always getting the ball on the 20?

"So, like I always say, the more you can do, the better. You just have to go out there and, whenever you get the opportunity, take advantage."

Spurlock, Parker and Stroughter each are capable receivers and each could make the team in that capacity and others.

"There's punt return, kickoff return," Dominik said. "All those things can still help guys make the team. And those same players you're talking about are also in the mix at the punt (return) position as well. So, I don't think it hurts them as much, and I don't think everybody is going to get touchbacks all the time. I'm hoping we do."

Regardless, there will be an increase in touchbacks, and that's frustrating to guys who make a living returning kicks.

"You want to get back there and take it to the house every time," Parker said. "It's like quarterbacks. Every quarterback wants to throw a touchdown every time they throw the ball."

That brings up another question: Will kick returners show less discipline with fewer opportunities? That can't be known until there's a larger sample size, but some restraint probably will have to be shown.

"That's going to be one of the big things that's talked about," Spurlock said. "There are going to be guys who get itchy and are going to bring it out. We're going to try our best to stay within the game plan and know that we have a potent enough offense, so if we have to take it 80 (yards), it's no problem."

Actually, it is sort of a problem. That's why the Bucs believe adding Koenen makes them substantially better. When taking possession at their own 20-yard line or farther back, Tampa Bay opponents in 2010 scored just 17 percent of the time. Only 6 percent of those possessions ended with touchdowns.

The Bucs were last in touchbacks last season with one, but if there are more in the fall, as expected, they figure they stand to benefit. And that, Tampa Bay believes, more than offsets what it will lose via its return game.

"We crushed it," coach Raheem Morris said of Koenen's performance Friday. "We were pretty good. I was happy with my kicker."

Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers well-positioned for change in kickoffs 08/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 15, 2011 8:15am]

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