Antonio Brown might have limited chances in the kicking game with the new NFL rules
On Friday afternoon, as I drove through the Pennsylvania countryside, I heard a commentator on Sirius NFL radio complain that the new kickoff rule in the NFL was ruining one of the most exciting plays in the game. (For those of you who are not aware, teams will be kicking off from their own 35 yard line instead of the 30. This has resulted in a drastic increase in touchbacks.) I called Sirius and explained to the commentators that this could transform rosters especially when faced with multiple injuries at a certain position. For example, say a team loses two defensive tackles early in the season. If they have a strong kicking game, they could decide to kick into the endzone on kickoffs (more than likely resulting in a touchback) and punt the ball out of bounds on 4th down. The team could cut their 7th defensive back and 7th receiver who both cover kicks and sign 3 or 4 defensive tackles to shore up the weakspot left by injuries (veteran players could pick up the slack on kick coverage). The commentator pointed out that in bad weather situations the kickers might not be able to kick the same and there is no guarantee that the kicker will kick the ball into the endzone every time. These are valid points and I would also add that there is no guarantee that the opposing team will take a touchback--but I highly doubt that head coaches are going to risk having the returners being tackled inside their own 20 during the regular season to make the game more exciting for the fans. Just in case you are scoring at home, this weekend's pre-season games had 140 kickoffs with 44 touchbacks (106 of those kicks made it to the endzone so that means 62 were returned) and week 1 of the 2010 pre-season saw 150 kickoffs and 26 touchbacks (63 made it to the endzone).
Date # of Kickoffs Reached endzone Touchbacks (%) Returned
8/2010 150 63 26 (17%) 124
8/2011 140 106 44 (31%) 96
They almost doubled the amount of touchbacks and that was with returners bringing the ball out when deep in the endzone. For example, during last night's Jets/Texans game, the returners were catching the ball 5-6 yards deep in the endzone and returning it. The explanation for this was that the coaches wanted to see their young players get a chance to make a play. Pre-season games mean nothing (see my blog post from 8/13/11) so the coaches weren't risking anything by letting the young guys return kicks that the coaches would never allow in the regular season--and you can forget the playoffs. So let's assume a team normally receives 5 kickoffs per game. If four of those kickoffs go into the endzone then there is no reason to hold a roster spot for a kickoff return specialist. If guys like Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs are limited to one touch per game in the special teams area, then their value drops dramatically. You could use your 4th string running back to return a kick just in case it doesn't make the endzone and cut your high-priced return specialist. So you go from paying a guy like Cribbs millions of dollars per year to a reserve player who is probably around the league minimum and you save a roster spot for an area of need. To me, this is a no-brainer.
For the last 20 years, the NFL has tried to jazz up special teams to make them more exciting. Initially, they moved the kickoff back from the 35 to the 30 to reduce the frequency of touchbacks, now they are going back to the old way to reduce the head-on, full-speed collisions that can result in serious injury. The NFL introduced the K-ball to make fieldgoals more exciting. They eliminated the wedge block so that kick coverage teams could more easily attack the ball carrier. Some people might say that this change is the further wussification of the game. Only time will tell what strategies that special teams coaches will use to make their units more relevant but if the numbers play out, you can extend your bathroom break after a score for an extra minute.
ap photo robert smith