Are Kickoff Returns Obsolete? … Tuesday Cup O’Chiefs

From St. Joseph, Missouri

It is not often that a rules change in the NFL gets the attention that’s come to the decision to move the kickoff point from the 30 to the 35-yard line.

After one week of the pre-season, in games that do not count in the season standings, many are decrying the change, complaining about too many touchbacks and the death of one of the NFL’s most exciting plays, the kickoff return for a touchdown.

“Honestly, I really don’t like it,” said Chiefs returner Dexter McCluster. “I know a lot of returners around the league don’t like it because it stops us from using what we use best, our dynamic ability and versatility. For us not to be able to catch the ball and run is going to be pretty hard to adjust to.”

I have to admit I was part of the naysayers on Friday in the Chiefs pre-season opener against Tampa Bay. There were seven kickoffs from the 35-yard and only one was returned. The other six went for touchbacks. Why even bother with the kick? Just give the offenses the ball at the 20-yard line and start the possession from there, without exposing players to any possible injury with the kickoff play.

But as week one of the pre-season wrapped up on Monday night with Houston and the New York Jets, the evidence provides a rehabilitated view of the situation.

Sorry, but we’ve got to go to the numbers here, but trust me, they tell the story:

  • There were 140 kickoffs in 16 games.
  • Touchbacks happened 44 times or 31 percent of the kicks.
  • There were 106 kickoffs that landed in the end zone, or 75.7 percent. With 44 touchbacks, there were 62 kickoffs brought out of the end zone, or 58.5 percent.
  • There were 95 kickoff returns that averaged 24.8 yards per return.
  • Among those 95 returns was a 103-yarder that was taken back for a touchdown. There were also returns for 84, 70 and 58 yards.
  • Last year in the pre-season, the average kickoff return was 24.5 yards. The average return during the 2010 regular season was 22.3 yards.

Conclusion – it’s way too early to say the rules change has ruined the excitement of the kickoff return. For one week at least, there doesn’t appear to be any major shift of football’s tectonic plate because touchbacks are up.

So Dexter, relax.

“It’s so tempting to bring it out,” McCluster said. “We have to slow ourselves down, but as a competitor and a returner we’ll be trying to get out of there (end zone) sometimes.”

As one might imagine, kicker Ryan Succop likes the new rule.

“People think it’s going to be touchbacks every single time you kick the ball, and early in the season you’ll see a lot of that,” Succop said. “But as the weather turns and guys legs get tired it won’t be a touchback every time come December.”

With the abbreviated timeframe to get ready for training camp, dealing with the kickoff change was not a high priority on the “to-do” list for head coaches and their staffs. But there will come a point where coaches will have to make a decision on how they handle the kickoff game. It can be on a kick-by-kick basis, or an established rule, as teams with either:

  1. Go for hang time and try to bottle up the returners inside the 20-yard line.
  2. Kick the ball out of the end zone and remove all chance for a return.

“It’ll be interesting,” allowed Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. “I think you’ll have two choices like everybody thinks.”

Haley hasn’t decided on how he’ll approach kickoffs, but it’s hard to believe he won’t keep his options open and change from game to game. Last year, the Chiefs worked in some short, high hang-time kickoffs with Succop against Seattle with Leon Washington and in other games.

“We did it last year and had some success with it,” Haley said. “I’m sure that will be a factor again.”

Special teams coach Steve Hoffman said it all comes down to who will be returning for the other team and under what conditions when it comes to weather and field conditions.

“Every yard we can get for the defense is going to be important,” Hoffman said. “Making an offense go 80 yards to the end zone is fine, but making them go 85 or 90 yards is even better.”

Succop had never directionally kicked in his career before last year, so it took plenty of practice. He tried to compare what he was doing with playing golf. From 100 yards away, a player would hit a pitching wedge to the green. From 50 yards away, he would still hit a pitching wedge, but he would have to hit it differently and with more finesse and less power.

“It’s all about placing the ball in the right spot and that’s not easy to do, especially when you’ve got weather conditions to deal with,” Succop said. “I wish it was so easy as hanging it up and then having it drop down on a target, but that’s not realistic. There are too many variables.”

Like hanging one high towards the corner and having the wind take it out of bounds and giving the other team the football on offense at the 40-yard line. That’s why some coaches won’t want to mess with hang-time kicks and will tell their foot to kick out of the back of the end zone.

The change in the rules was to increase player safety as the league was concerned about injuries in the kicking game. That’s admirable, but we also may find out in the coming weeks that it has changed one of the great plays in the game.

2 Responses to “Are Kickoff Returns Obsolete? … Tuesday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • August 16, 2011  - indplschiefsfan says:

    Sorry, Bob. Not a fan of this rule. Don’t care what the pre-season stats say. And with it being done to address what amounts to a 4 percentage point difference in the injury rate on kickoffs to regular scrimmage play, I don’t think it’s worth it.

  • August 24, 2011  - bigdaddyt says:

    I say bring it out of the endzone every single time. Screw it put pressure on the other team all 3 phases. We have good returners, let them run!

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