Some of us are waiting patiently for the obituary of NFL kick returners to cross the NFL.com news desk … any day now. Is there a chance, any chance, that we’re all overstating the impact of Tuesday’s vote by the NFL Competition Committee to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line?
The immediate angst from players who make their livelihood on special teams, and more specifically kick returns, is understandable. Devin Hester said the rule goes too far. Leon Washington doesn’t like it either. Joshua Cribbs thinks it will make returners “obsolete.”
There’s no denying we’ll see a higher number of touchbacks in 2011. In 1993, the final season kickoffs came from the 35, 27 percent of all kickoffs (1,923 that season) were touchbacks (520). Last season, 16.4 percent of all kickoffs (2,539) went for touchbacks (416), the second-highest percentage of any season since the rule change, a number that has been gradually increasing anyway due to bigger kicking legs and kickoff specialists.
Rick McKay, chairman the of the competition committee, estimates touchbacks will increase 5-15 percent. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick put the range of touchbacks between 25-35 percent. Let’s say touchbacks approximately double from the 2010 rate, increasing to 30 percent. Looking at 2,500 kickoffs, that’s a total of 750 touchbacks.
But we’re still talking about 1,750 kick returns, meaning plenty of opportunities. The average kickoff last season landed at the 5.5-yard line, meaning the average kick next season presumably lands near the goal line. The truth is return opportunities will only become even more valuable.
Don’t discount that the strategy and risk allowance of special teams coaches will adjust with the rule. If you have Cribbs, Hester, Washington or Brad Smith, you might be more apt to give them the green light from 5 or 7 yards deep in the end zone, kicks in which they would have previously taken a knee. For the elite returners who can make plays in those situations, they’ll only become even more elite. As Colts president Bill Polian said, “the stars will shine.”
The off-setting factor involved is that players on kickoff coverage will only be allowed to line up between the 30-35, eliminating the 15-yard run up to kickoffs that had become status-quo. Seahawks special teamer Michael Robinson believes that will make front-line blocking easier and will result in even better field position when kicks are returned. Deeper kicks, in which big-legged kickers essentially out-kick their coverage, could correlate into even longer returns.
It’s all great conversation for us to have in March. The overreaction is logical, if not expected. But it’s hardly all fire and brimstone, folks, when it comes to the extinction of kick returns some are forecasting. Kick returners — especially the elite — will still be critical.