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Early returns: How kickoff rule changes could impact game

Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Marc Mariani made the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a return specialist, a position that might get phased out with new rules.


After one week of preseason games, sweeping conclusions are being drawn on the effect of the new rules moving kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35.

Kicking off the conversation
The new kickoff rules continue to be a hot topic of conversation. As our experts weigh in, some think the changes will have a positive impact, but it's far from unanimous. More ...

And it's probably too early for all that.

The early parts of the preseason are about evaluation and experimentation, particularly where changes in the game happen (either specific to a team or the rules). You saw plenty of that the past five days.

"I don't think a lot of teams are doing things like the high directional kicks yet," said one AFC scout following the weekend, "and that's because they want to get a look at their cover units."

Or their return men. Over the weekend, there were 140 kickoffs in 16 games. Of those, 106 reached the end zone, with 44 staying there for touchbacks. In 2010, the first week of preseason play saw 150 kickoffs with 63 landing in the end zone (42 percent) and 26 going for touchbacks (17.3 percent). Chances are, if a coach wanted to get a good read on a young returner over the weekend, he wasn't going to enforce the same rules about staying in or coming out of the end zone that he would in the regular season. Then there's the fact that, as an NFC personnel exec puts it, "Special teams coaches have ideas and have to see if they'll work."

Closer look at kickoffs from first week of preseason
Year Kickoffs In end zone Touchbacks Returns Average
2011 140 106 44 96 24.8
2010 150 63 26 124 23.8

Point is, in the preseason, it's about taking advantage of the chance to see players in game situations that can't be replicated at camp. And since special teams are an area where live situations are few and far between in practice, it makes sense that coaches would do all they could to test players in that part of the game, which would lead to bypassing touchbacks.

Take the Cleveland-Green Bay game. Between the two teams, there were 10 kickoffs, and nine reached the end zone, yet there was just one touchback. Why? Well, a total of five kick returners got chances; all were rookies. So the coaches got a chance to get those guys on tape.

What it all adds up to is, quite possibly, even more touchbacks when the season starts. What else can we glean from the first weekend with kickoffs at the 35? Thanks for asking...

Big Foot

Some assume teams will employ fewer kickoff specialists with the end zone more approachable. But it could well wind up going the other way, "especially with the new 46 rule," said one AFC personnel chief.

That's a reference to the expansion of the gameday roster to 46 players, with the elimination of the third-quarterback designation. And as the personnel man puts it, "It's not what the NFL truly wanted by putting the rule in," but it could well be a way to manage your roster differently. By having a brute to bang the ball through the end zone, teams might save roster spots on coverage players. And save themselves in other areas, too.

"If you have a suspect defense (it could help)," said the AFC personnel man. "It's all strategy now. If you can back Peyton (Manning), (Tom) Brady or (Drew) Brees to the 20-yard line, you have your value there. I think teams that are only carrying two quarterbacks active would think about using that last spot on a (kickoff specialist)."

Able ... but willing?

The above premise that there will be more touchbacks assumes that's what all kickers will be shooting for. And that won't necessarily be the case.

"Some teams will kick it out of the end zone," said an NFC personnel executive. "Others are gonna try to high kick or directional kick to pin an offense inside the 20. And teams are also trying faster returners with more straight-line speed to combat it, and may take more kicks out that are five yards or deeper in the end zone. There will be more strategic tinkering. Those teams that are working on pinning or going directional aren't dealing with weather yet -- that will be interesting, too."

The weather is a perfect example of why things in this area of the game figure to evolve over the course of the season. Different circumstances will come up and change things, and clubs will have to adapt. So to read too much into a summer weekend with no inclement conditions would be a mistake.

Wither the return specialist

If what you do best as a pro football player is return kickoffs, you better make yourself valuable in other areas. Because no matter how you slice it, there are going to be fewer of the kind of electrifying runbacks that have provided players like Dante Hall with lengthy NFL careers.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were more squib kicks in the fall, and I wouldn't be surprised if the touchback record isn't just broken, but demolished," said the first AFC scout. "I think punt return specialists are still at a premium, but kickoff returners are a dime a dozen."

As such, players who excel in kickoff coverage might also become less valuable. That could trickle down to teams being more apt to keep a linebacker or defensive back or receiver on the back end of the roster more for his offensive or defensive potential than to fill a gameday special teams role.

Overall, if there's one thing that's already clear here, it's that those five yards figure to make one big difference on Sundays this fall. As for the specifics on how it'll happen, even those paid to know will have to wait with the rest of us to find out.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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