Suppose the NFL gave the Bears’ offense an extra nine plays and guaranteed them more than 5 yards for those plays. The Bears in fact have had the opportunities for those “free” yards and haven’t taken them.
The yards are some of the “hidden” yards, in this case 46 yards that the Bears deprived themselves just by failing to return kickoffs as far as the 25-yard line – which the NFL gives teams as part of the touchback rule – through their first two games.
Bears special teams have opted to return nine kickoffs in the two games this season. Of those, only one has been brought out as far as the Chicago 25, the spot that the NFL gives free just for taking a knee in the end zone. The result was the offense starting twice at the 17, once at the 22 and once at the 10 in the Houston game, for example, the last of those made worse by an illegal-block penalty. Against Philadelphia, none of the four kickoffs were returned as far as the 25.
Had those returns simply been taken as touchbacks, the offense would have been set up a rough total of 46 yards farther out. The upshot is that the Bears are admittedly taking a long look at which kicks they return and which they just take a knee and the 25.
“I feel like we can score every time we bring it out,” returner Deonte Thompson said. “But sometimes it depends on a lot of factors. Do we want to take a risk of being hit at the 15 and put the offense in bad position? Definitely not.
“The extra five yards means a lot. It changes how we think.”
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Through two game weekends, only six returners are average as much as 25 yards on kickoff runbacks. Adding a spot of insult to injury, the current No. 2 and No. 3 returners are Bears castoffs: Devin Hester (29.3 yards), now with Baltimore; and Eric Weems (28.3), back with Atlanta.
Thompson stands 12th at 20.7 yards per return.
Notably perhaps, no NFL kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns yet this season, making the risk-reward situation favor taking the yards rather than gambling for the big runback.
“I think that if they’re going to give you the ball at the 25 instead of the 20, there’s more times that you’re going to take a knee now than you would have done before,” acknowledged Jeff Rodgers, Bears special teams coordinator. “That return in the past, let’s say the ball is 3 [yards] deep and you return to the 22. Well, up until this year you’re getting 2 yards where you would’ve on a touchback, now you’re 3 yards less than you would’ve on a touchback. So it certainly factors in the equation.”