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.
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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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