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Will NFL tell teams to kick away?


In an effort to make the “most dangerous play” in the game safer, the NFL wants to reduce the number of kickoff returns. This year, the NFL adopted yet another rule change aimed at reducing the number of kickoff returns.

The problem, of course, is that the rule moving the touchback on kickoffs from the 20 to the 25 could actually increase the number of kickoff returns, as teams deliberately try to kick the ball short of the end zone in the hopes of pinning the opponent inside its own 25. For now, few teams have revealed their plans for adjusting to the change. Recent comments from Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater suggest that his team, and others, will try to avoid handing offenses an extra five yards at the outset of a given drive.

The item from MDS regarding the conference call that NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino conducted with all 32 special-teams coordinators, ostensibly to collect information regarding more ways to make the kickoff return safer, activated my personal “things may not always be what they seem” meter, which more commonly is known by the use of the second and 19th letters of the alphabet.

Was the conference call part of an effort to make it known to teams that they will be expected to kick the ball off as they ordinarily would, banging it through the end zone or deep enough into it that the return team will have to decide whether to take the ball at the 25 or run it out? Even if there has been and/or will be no arm twisting, the mere purpose of Blandino’s call -- i.e., looking for ways to make the kickoff return safer -- already sends a clear message as to the preferences of 345 Park Avenue.

Will less subtle means eventually be used to let teams know that they’ll be expected to kick away?

The story line has the potential to become a very important one as the season unfolds, with the league office working behind the scenes to persuade teams deliberately kicking the ball short, and in turn triggering more kickoff returns, to stop doing it -- and with the league office also working to persuade teams that reluctantly are complying with the desire to make the kickoff return safer to continue to kick away even though some other teams aren’t.

Ultimately, there could be tension within a given franchise, with ownership pushing the coaching staff to kick away and the coaching staff resisting, perhaps with passive-aggressive means like claiming that they’re trying to kick away but the kicker simply isn’t getting the ball as deep as the coaching staff would like him to.

However it plays out, it’s hard to imagine the NFL encouraging any team to adapt to a rule change aimed at reducing the number of kickoff returns by strategically embracing more of them. Blandino’s conference call may have been the first tangible step toward getting the word out that the league office wants to see kicked footballs sailing past the goal line on a regular basis.