Patriots

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

Change is coming for the kickoff. It's just a matter of time now.

In the name of player safety, several proposed rule changes for the kickoff will be presented to NFL owners at next week's Spring League Meeting in Atlanta. In order for the rules changes to take hold, 24 of the 32 owners will have to approve.

The proposals have been met with plenty of public support. Special teams coaches are intrigued by the new rules. Media invested in the play, in particular, 14-year NFL veteran Jay Feely, are on board. Even though the changes could drastically change the look of the kickoff, they may save the play by making it safer. The alternative might've been eliminating it altogether.

Patriots special teams ace and captain Matthew Slater was asked about the potential for the play's elimination earlier this offseason, back in April.

"I think you take away this play from football [and] you’re changing the fabric of the game," he said. "I think this play is part of the fabric of the game. It really makes me ask the question ‘Where do you go from here? What will happen next?’, and I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know. But I look at a number of plays. I look at a goal-line stand. I look at a third-and-1; think about the collisions that are happening there. Those may be deemed unsafe by some people. 

"If you [eliminate kickoffs], what’s next? What happens? The reality is this is football. This is a contact sport. This is a violent sport, and all of us that are playing the game understand that. There are inherent risks that come along with playing the game. If you’re not OK with those risks, I respect that, and maybe you should think about doing something else. But if we feel like we need to take away this play from the game to make the game safer, well then what does that stop?"

With next week's proposals, the Competition Committee in conjunction with special teams coaches may have found a happy medium. Slater and others don't have to be worried about the play being erased just yet. 

But the kickoff will be different. Here's a tweet from NFL Vice President of Football Communications explaining the proposed changes. 

Let's take a quick look at not only how the proposed changes will change the play, but how it will change the play for the Patriots... 

DONE WITH POP-UP KICKS?


The Patriots have benefitted from having a kicker in Stephen Gostkowski who's adept at kicking the ball high and placing it near an opponent's goal line to force a return. Combined with great speed on New England's coverage unit, the Patriots have been one of the best in football in terms of pinning opponents inside their own 25-yard line. Last year, the Patriots were tops in the league in terms of average opponent starting field position. But if the proposal to have kickoff coverage players line up just one yard behind the ball prior to the kick passes...that would eliminate the running start for the coverage team, which would make it harder for players to get down the field and pin return men deep in their own territory on those high kicks. As a result, the Patriots may move away from using those pop-up kicks as frequently as they do. 

But on the flip side, when returning, the Patriots could benefit in a big way. With teams unable to get a running start when they kick off, that'll make kickoff returns more wide open. That might mean more space for one of the league's top return men, Cordarrelle Patterson, when he has an opportunity for a return. Patterson has 153 career kick returns and has averaged 30.2 yards per return. He's taken five back for touchdowns. 

WEDGE PROPOSAL COULD ALTER ROSTERS


Wedge blocks are relatively violent. Not only because they entail a two-on-one matchup, but because kick coverage units could employ wedge-busters to break up the two-man wall. That led to big collisions and injuries. Under the proposed rule changes, those wedge blocks deep down the field would be illegal. With only three players allowed to align deep on the kick-return unit, with the elimination of the running start from coverage units, and with a ban on blocks in the restricted area prior to the ball hitting the ground or being touched, the kickoff is going to look a little more like a punt. More one-on-one blocks, fewer double-teams and trap-blocks, leading to fewer high-impact collisions. 

For teams looking to take advantage of the more wide-open nature of the play, including the Patriots, this could have a very real impact on how rosters are built. Faster players vying for a back-end-of-the-roster spot could have an advantage over bigger ones. On the back end of return units, teams will need players who can cover a great deal of ground. And if wedge blocks are gone, the importance of having more imposing, but less mobile, blockers will be mitigated. Teams could lean toward the use of more linebackers and corners in the return game rather than some of the bigger offensive and defensive linemen who sometimes line up to clear space returners. 

ALIGNMENT PROPOSAL LIMITS SOME CREATIVITY


Because one proposal would require teams to have five players on either side of the kicker, that would limit some onside kick formations that call for one side with six players. Pre-kick motions and formations may also be limited. This is something the Patriots have used in a variety of ways under Bill Belichick. They've sent some of their faster players - whether it's Slater or Jonathan Jones or someone else - in motion pre-kick to complicate opposing blocking assignments. One proposal requires at least two players outside the numbers and at least two players between the numbers and the hash marks. If that proposal sticks, it wouldn't necessarily erase kickoff motion, but it may hinder some of the different types of pre-kick shuffling that's been allowed in the past. 

MORE ACTION FOR EBNER...?


Patriots fans probably don't have the fondest memories of Nate Ebner's rugby-style mortar kick against the Eagles in 2015, but the proposal requiring eight return-team players to align in a 15-yard "set-up zone" closer to midfield might open up some space for kicking teams to get creative. A well-placed short kick - or a rugby boot - could find the soft spot in the return unit. This is why having fast players on the back end matters. A kick over the heads of the eight players in the "set-up zone" and in front of the three-man return group could cause ball-handling issues. In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots employed tight end Dwayne Allen and fullback James Develin as the wedge players in front of return man Dion Lewis. There may be some thought from special teams coordinators around the league to sub out bigger athletes with ones who have more return experience.

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Light: Scarnecchia the key in getting a left tackle ready

Light: Scarnecchia the key in getting a left tackle ready

The Patriots have been fortunate in that they've benefited from having abnormally consistent personnel at some of the game's most critical positions. Tom Brady at quarterback is obvious. Having Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski at kicker has been a luxury Bill Belichick has referenced many times in recent years.

Left tackle has been a similarly steady spot. Belichick began with longtime starter Bruce Armstrong in 2000. Then Matt Light took over, almost uninterrupted save for a serious injury in 2005, from 2001 through 2011. Then it was Nate Solder who manned Brady's blindside from 2012 through last season.

Now? It's the biggest question mark on the Patriots roster. Light's aware. And after it was announced that he'd be this year's inductee for the Hall at Patriot Place, he explained how critical offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be for the club as it transitions to whoever is next up at that position.

"I'm not sure it's as appreciated as it should be," Light said Wednesday, "but the work that Dante does and the work that he puts into the offseason, and the work that he puts in with the young guys who come into the organization, and how he motivates those guys and pushes them to be in the best position possible to play the game, I’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability to prepare the guys that he thinks are the best to take the field. And maybe that means they’re going to be juggling a lot of guys in and out and trying to play multiple positions, and getting them in the fire a little bit and seeing how they react."

Light recalled the work done behind the scenes by Scarnecchia and his teammates when he went down with an injury, whether it was a minor issue or a long-term one. 

"They've done it in the past," Light said. "There were times that I went down and Nick Kazcur, Tom Ashworth, the guys that backed up and played the tackle position. We got a lot of great play from those guys. The all-time swing guy Russ Hochstein, and the different ways that Dante had guys ready to go in and fill the void. And it's a big void. It’s definitely something that we’re all going to be keeping an eye on. It’ll be interesting to see how they do it and how teams try to take advantage of maybe a younger player or a guy that doesn’t have as many snaps . . . They'll be ready to roll. They'll be prepared."

That "younger player" could very well be first-round rookie Isaiah Wynn. Wynn is considered undersized for the position, but he put together a strong resume in the nation's best conference while at Georgia. He's cut from a very different mold compared to Solder, and if he's chosen to start the season as the anchor on the left side, he'll have very big shoes to fill, Light explained. 

"Nate’s not a guy you can just replace," Light said. "No. 1, because he’s a ridiculously large mammal. I’ll never forget the first time I met him, I thought, man, it shouldn’t be right that guys like this are designed the way they are. No fat. Runs like a deer. Has got the reach and the wingspan of a vulture. The guy’s just unbelievably talented in so many ways, and he’s smart. Nate was a very smart, cerebral player. You don’t replace a guy like that overnight . . . 

“They’ve got some guys that have had a little bit of experience and seen some stuff, but overall, you got, it looks as though you’re going to be going with a guy that may have zero experience in the NFL. Who knows how it all shakes out. But it’s been done before.”

Light started 12 of the 14 games he played as a rookie. (He explained he was benched to start the season-opener his rookie year because he got stuck in traffic behind a jack-knifed tractor trailer somewhere between Cincinnati and the team hotel in Kentucky.) But his performance on the left side that year, which culminated in the franchise's first Super Bowl, propelled him to an illustrious career and an induction to the team's hall of fame that will take place on Sept. 29.

"It's very humbling," Light said. "It's the biggest honor that I could think of to be honored by the people in the community and the fans that really understood you as a player. This is hard to put into words really. I had an opportunity to come to New England and play football. I didn't have any major dreams growing up as a kid to be an NFL player. I was one of these guys as an NFL player who was extremely fortunate to not only make it to the NFL but make it to an organization that put winning first, but right behind that did so many other things that made my experience extremely special, whether it was the community side of the organization and giving back, the people I got to meet, raising my family here in New England. 

"There are so many things about my NFL experience that is truly unique. I just gotta say that an honor like this, it's hard for me to not bring up the guys . . . so many guys that I look up to and so many guys that I feel deserve this award. It's just hard to believe that this is something that I'm now gonna be able to say that I'm a Hall of Famer for the Patriots, it's tough for me to really grasp that."

Light said he missed Robert Kraft's initial call to let him know he'd won the online fan vote, beating out Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour to be this year's inductee. When he finally got the call, it was a day later, and he was in the woods of Burrillville, Rhode Island, "chasing the elusive wild turkey."

"Apparently turning my cell phone off [Tuesday] wasn't a good idea," he said. "We were running a leadership conference for some kids in Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River at Bridgewater State for the [Light] Foundation and I missed a call from Mr. Kraft. [Wednesday] morning, I know he was juggling a lot . . . but in between a busy schedule that he had, he reached out and let me know that I was joining a very special group, and that this was gonna be a special year for the Hall. They're celebrating their 10th year. Just to have him call and let me know that the Hall of Fame -- the selection committee, and of course the fans --voted to bring me in, it's just really special."

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McDaniels says role hasn't changed, but he's open to taking on more

McDaniels says role hasn't changed, but he's open to taking on more

FOXBORO -- When Patriots.com posted draft-day videos from the team's war room, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was right there for the internet to see. He sat with coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio, football research director Ernie Adams, chairman and CEO Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft. He had a seat at the head table.

Was that the first sign that McDaniels would have an expanded role in New England after he passed up the opportunity to take the head coaching job in Indy? Not exactly, according to him.

When I asked last week if anything about his job had changed since he decided to come back to the Patriots, McDaniels explained that his gig was the same as it ever was.

"My role is the same," he said. "I would say that I'm always open to...If they wanted to give me any responsibility in any way shape or form, I'd try my best at it. And I'm always trying to learn. If there's something they'll let me be a part of that could make me a better coach, I'm definitely going to do it. I'm still at a part in my career where I'm trying to grow and get better. If there's anything that I'm able to do in that regard, then I would jump at the chance."

Meanwhile, Albert Breer of SI.com reported on Thursday that McDaniels' presence in the team's "notoriously small and private draft room" was a "new development, and reflects a step forward."

That was a reasonable assumption after what had been said about the factors that led to McDaniels staying in New England soon after the Super Bowl. Following his decision to stick with the Patriots, indications were that he'd been given clarity about his future with the team -- clarity he hadn't had previously -- and the presumption was that changes were coming.

"The opportunity," McDaniels told the Boston Globe's Jim McBride in March, "to stay here and work for who I think is the greatest owner in sports and the best head football coach in the history of our game, to work with the best quarterback that has ever played...Look, I’m privileged to have the opportunity to do that, and when they kind of crystallized that -- ‘Hey, here’s what we see going forward and here’s how we would like you to fit into it’ -- it gave me a reason to stop and say, ‘All right, what’s the best decision for me?’ And certainly, it was difficult. But I made the decision on my own, nobody pushed me into it."

Maybe that part about "here's what we see going forward" didn't mean any immediate changes to McDaniels' role. That could've meant responsibilities would only be added down the line. Perhaps it was strictly a reference to McDaniels' compensation; the Globe reported that he did have his contract "adjusted" when he decided to stay.

Still, it felt like there was more was on the horizon for McDaniels. And at the draft -- whether this was the team's intention or not -- McDaniels seemed to have more of a forward-facing role. He joined Belichick, Caserio and Robert Kraft as the guest speakers at the team's draft party before the first round. And then there were those inside-the-draft-room videos.

It's hard to put too much stock into what's seen on those things. They're obviously produced by the team and heavily edited. But the fact remains that McDaniels was shown sitting with the team's decision-makers all weekend. A quick scan of Patriots.com draft videos in the past shows the same primary players -- Belichick, Caserio, Adams, the Krafts -- together without their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 

That doesn't mean McDaniels hasn't been in the room before, of course.

"Josh has been in there before, even going way back to the 2000s when he and I were in there together when we really didn’t know anything," Caserio said on draft weekend. "We still don’t know anything, although we have a little more experience. Look, Josh is a great friend of mine, there’s no question about it. He’s great to work with. Our entire coaching staff is very involved in our process. We have a lot of confidence and faith in their information, their input and their evaluation. Josh has been in there before and our coaches, and their opinions on our entire staff, are very valid. They’re an intricate part of this process and we rely on them on a lot of information, and Josh is included. He’s one of them."

“I’ve been in there before,” McDaniels said. “Some years I’ve been in there and some years I haven’t. It all depends on what the focus is or isn’t at that particular year. I think all of us hear the same thing each spring. Our responsibility is to -- whatever they give us in terms of evaluating and scouting. We try to do the best we can, whether that’s going on trips to visit guys or doing stuff when we get to have our 30 visits in the building or watching tape and evaluating guys on tape.

“From that perspective, my role did not change at all. I’ve always been involved to whatever capacity that they wanted or needed me to do. And at the same time, if they’ll let me do that, if they’ll let me be a part of anything -- I think all coaches would agree -- we’d all like to learn as much as we can from every opportunity that we have to be around Bill, Nick, Robert, the scouting staff.”

So, maybe McDaniels was in there this year because the Patriots had done so much work on this year's quarterback class. If that was the focus of this particular year, then it would make sense to have him in. 

But in 2014, when the Patriots were in on the quarterback class and selected one in the second round, it was assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi who was at the head table (he was there in 2016 and 2015 as well), not McDaniels.

Again, those videos are edited. It's a little ridiculous to go too far down the rabbit hole and refer back to those as evidence of anything. But the perception at draft weekend was that McDaniels had graduated to the draft-day inner circle. And Breer's report would support that perception. Plus it stands to reason that if a media-conscious team like the Patriots wanted to hammer home the message that McDaniels' role is what it was last year, then they could've done a better job of illustrating that. They didn't.

From an ownership perspective, it would make sense to have an eye toward the future as it wonders what's next for the franchise. It would make sense if the Krafts wanted to put a little more on McDaniels' plate or to give him more forward-facing opportunities to see how he'll handle them. As much experience at the head table as possible for McDaniels -- during the draft or anything else -- might give the Krafts a better idea of how he'd make the transition to the head job if they ever wanted him to make it.

McDaniels was asked last week, was his decision to stick helped at all by an understanding that he might one day succeed Belichick?

"Nope, nope," he said. "I mean, my role is the same. Look, I think if you’re here, you have an opportunity to work with and for the best people in our game -- maybe some of the best people that have ever done those things in our game.

"Whatever happens in the future is going to happen. I just know that I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be the offensive coordinator here, coach quarterbacks, work with the offense, and work for the people that I work for."

McDaniels may be able to make his head-coaching dreams come true elsewhere at some point. Even though the wound he left in Indy is fresh, the league is annually desperate for good head coaches and McDaniels is still just 42. 

"I’ll say this: I’ve stated again and again that I definitely want to be a head coach again," McDaniels said. "At the same time, I love being here. This is where my kids were born and raised. We’ve made a pretty special life here, and that’s not an easy thing to leave."

If he can accomplish his goal of becoming a head coach without leaving, going through a more hands-on apprenticeship under Belichick as he waits for his next shot, that would seem like a win-win both for McDaniels and the family that encouraged him to stay. He'll learn, and the Krafts can learn more about him. And if the Krafts' are already planning on leaning in McDaniels' direction when the time comes, even if they haven't promised him anything, then it would make even more sense for them to encourage him to take on as much as he can.

We may not know exactly how, if at all, McDaniels' role will change this year. But draft weekend was an instance where the Patriots were perfectly fine with at least giving the appearance that more had been put on his plate. It was right there on their homepage. 

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