Hey, guess where the next Patriot-aimed NFL rule change will likely be? Did you say kickoffs? You didn't? I know. There are so many options. It's okay.
Be that as it may. During a Friday morning conference call with reporters, NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay let it be known that the league is eyeballing the pooch kickoff that the Patriots employ so well and looking at whether the kickoff rule needs to be tweaked further.
In 2016, in an effort to drive down the number of kickoff returns and -- ostensibly -- reduce injuries, the league voted to reward return teams by granting them the ball on the 25 as opposed to the 20 after a touchback.
Since field position matters, some teams -- the Patriots being the most high-profile -- avoided touchbacks by kicking moonballs short of the end zone and then hauling ass downfield to bring down returners inside the 25.
The 2017 numbers bear this out. In 2017, Stephen Gostkowski kicked off 99 times. There were 40 touchbacks, 58 returns and one onsides kick. The Eagles were the next closest team in terms of the number of kickoffs covered (47) . Twelve teams had fewer than half the Patriots' 58 returns covered. The Panthers, Niners and Raiders had 12, 15 and 15 respectively. That's the kind of thing that gets a big attaboy from New York.
The Patriots were third-best in the NFL in covering kickoffs, allowing 18.9 yards per return (behind Baltimore and Washington).
The Patriots -- and a few other teams -- clearly altered their strategy based on the new rule. In 2016, Gostkowski had touchbacks on 53 percent of his kickoffs. In 2017 it was down to 41. The Chargers, Bucs and Dolphins also had precipitous drops in the number of touchbacks.
In 2015, the Patriots had the fifth-most touchbacks on kickoffs (67.6 percent). And this is not what the Competition Committee wanted to see when it passed the rule, as McKay made clear.
"The reason we made [the rule change] for one year only was we were concerned about people as a rule beginning to pooch this ball -- kick it high and keep it in the field of play," said McKay, who is also President and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. "We've seen some of that but it did not change the return percentages really so we're kinda happy with where that is."
Oh, but happy doesn't mean satisfied. The tinkering, adjusting and manipulating never ends, especially when the NFL's ultimate goal is achieving the almighty competitive balance, which New England has avoided for two decades.
The first portion of the conference call was devoted to saluting the fact anybody can win and anybody can suck AT ANY TIME with McKay noting, "One of our hallmarks is competitive balance. Eight of the 12 playoff teams weren't in the playoffs in 2016, that's the most since 2003. Two went worst to first in their divisions including the Super Bowl champions. In 14 of 15 seasons we've had a team go from last to first."
If competitive balance is a "hallmark" then the Patriots' relentless success would have to be . . . what? A stain? An embarrassment? Whatever the league would call it, it's beyond obvious that the Competition Committee (in concert with the league office) takes a hatchet to the New England redwood.
So what further tweak to kickoffs could be coming?
"College has a rule proposal in front of them that would allow you on a pooch kick to fair catch and the ball would come out to the 25," said McKay. "We'll look at that and see how it works for them. But our numbers are where they are. We think there's more work to be done on the kickoff and working on ways to make it safer and we're gonna do that.
McKay was available in advance of next week's owner's meetings in Orlando, in which a fleet of proposed rules changes and bylaws will be reviewed and voted on.
The most discussed is the "catch/no-catch" rule which always created debate and a level of outrage. But the strongest determination to change the ruling came after Steelers tight end Jesse James failed to control the ball after stretching for the goal line in a key regular-season game against the Patriots.
The rule was correctly applied by VP of Officiating Al Riveron -- James didn't establish himself as a runner, went to the ground and lost control of it in the end zone. But when the Steelers proceeded to pee down their legs on the next few plays and blow a chance to win, the outcome ensured the rule would be re-opened.
Who knows how motivated the league would have been if the Steelers won anyway. Or if the play happened in a Cardinals-Bears game in October.
Now, McKay says, that will change "Jesse James would be a touchdown," he stated. "We tried to simplify the rule, tried to make it a definable three-step process, two feet down or a body part and an act -- reaching, tucking, a number of things -- or if you had enough time and didn't do it but didn't have to."
The first of many Patriots-inspired rules changes came in 2004 when -- after the physicality of the Patriots defensive backs in the 2003 AFC Championship unmoored the Colts and Peyton Manning -- Indianapolis president Bill Polian ramrodded through an edict to enforce illegal contact more closely.
After the Patriots 2014 Super Bowl season, the league moved to outlaw the formation trickery the Patriots used to great effect against the Ravens, gave greater empowerment to medical spotters to stop the game and remove an apparently injured player after Julian Edelman stumbled in the Super Bowl after a big hit from Kam Chancellor and then went on to help lead the Patriots comeback over Seattle, and came up with a crapload of cockamamie "protocols" to ensure footballs weren't tampered with before the game. The last was such a point of emphasis, the officials actually left the footballs and the air gauges at their Boston hotel prior to a 2016 playoff game between the Patriots and Chiefs.
Between all these instances AND the under-the-radar admission by NFL VP of Operations Troy Vincent that, by 2017 standards, the Super Bowl touchdown by Corey Clement shouldn't have counted, it's enough to make a franchise, fan base and observing media think there's a conspiracy.