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New kickoff rule present plenty of opportunities for creativity, strategy

NFL VP of football operations Troy Vincent explains why he expects more kickoff returns to happen with the new rules installed.

Even if the current change to the kickoff amounts to a half-measure toward the elimination of the kickoff altogether, teams will have to figure out how to implement the new formation in a way that enhances the overriding effort to win, for as long as the new formation is in place. And coaches already have begun to brainstorm regarding the opportunities created by an alignment aimed at reducing injuries.
“I think, in general, it’s going to change a lot, just fundamentally and from a scheme standpoint, what the teams are allowed to do, obviously the alignments,” Lions coach Matt Patricia recently said, via Justin Rogers of the Detroit News. “There’s certainly some different, we’ll call them, some dangers that are going to show up that I think all of them aren’t really identified yet until all the coaches kind of put their heads together and say, ‘Hey this is a way for us to attack here,’ or ‘There might be an area here we could go after.’”

That’s what the best coaches do: Identify the opportunities and figure out how to capitalize on them, while also figuring out how to prevent opposing coaches from doing the same.
“It will be interesting to see just exactly how teams approach the rule, and if they’re trying to force guys to return kicks or not, or pin them back and kind of use the field position battle there,” Patricia added. “It will be a lot of things to think about from a standpoint, ‘Are you playing inside? Are you playing outside? Are you playing altitude where balls are going to travel farther or you can hang it up higher?’ You know, all those strategic things that come into effect. It will just be a little different because of obviously the alignments where everybody’s in. So, we’ll have to see how that goes. We’re on it. We’re experimenting with it, taking a look at it, trying to scheme it up and then try to really problem solve it.”

The experimentation will continue during offseason workouts and training camp. Publicly, teams will be experimenting with the new kickoff procedures via 65 preseason games.

And then the regular season will begin, and who knows what will happen? Teams may decide when kicking off to always bang the ball out of the end zone, conceding the 25. Teams may decide when receiving to always take a knee.

Some teams may decide to try to figure out how to pin the opponent deep, with quick, athletic players who can slip past the blockers and converge on the returner and the two men who will be back there to block for him. Some teams may decide to try to drop a quasi-onside kick between the eight who must be within 15 yards of the kickoff point and the three who are lined up deeper. Plenty of other possible approaches can be attempted, with sky kicks, squib kicks, line drives, positional kicks, or whatever kind of strange hops and spins that a kicker can put on the ball.

If nothing else, it will make a play that was happening less and less a little more interesting. And it could be wise to enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s still very possible that the kickoff will end up becoming one less way that the foot will be used in football.

For more on the kickoff and other rule changes, check out Friday’s #PFTPM podcast, which includes a one-hour discussion with former NFL V.P. of officiating and FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira.