Stephen Gostkowski is one of the National Football League's best kickers, so it is no surprise that, in New England's preseason game against Chicago, the Patriots had Gostkowski loft the opening kickoff to the 4-yard line, so the coverage team could stop the return short of the 25-yard line -- where the ball is automatically placed on a touchback. Alas, when Robbie Gould kicked to the Patriots in the same game, they decided to return the kickoff from 5 yards deep in the end zone. Stopped at the 15 yard line -- 10 yards short of where they would have been had they simply taken a knee in the end zone -- the Pats summed up in two plays the risks and rewards of the NFL's new kickoff rule.
The preseason is the month of experimentation for coaches, and nowhere has this been more apparent than on the kickoff. None of it is absolutely indicative of what teams will do in the regular season -- after all, coaches are still trying to evaluate fringe roster players on coverage and return teams, so they probably want more returns than usual -- but the results of the league's rule to move the touchback to the 25-yard line to discourage returns have been decidedly mixed and sometimes messy.
According to NFL Media research, out of 142 total kickoffs in the first week of the preseason, just 42 (29.6 percent) resulted in touchbacks, and the other 100 were returned. Furthermore, 99 of the 142 kickoffs went into the end zone, meaning there were 57 additional opportunities for a touchback, but the returner opted instead to run the ball back.
In Week 2, there were 137 total kickoffs, 50 of which (36.5 percent) were touchbacks. A total of 102 kickoffs (74.5 percent) reached the end zone, so teams returned the ball 52 times when they didn't have to. That means that of the 279 kickoffs so far this preseason, the ball went into the end zone 72 percent of the time, but only 33 percent of all kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, while 67 percent were returned.
If those figures hold up in the regular season, they would go completely against the hopes of the Competition Committee and NFL owners.
Last regular season, 41.1 percent of all kickoffs were returned, so if the return rate of 67 percent from the first two weeks of this preseason continues into the 2016 campaign, it would represent an alarming spike for the league, which approved the new touchback line as a one-year experiment, positioning the decision as a move to increase player safety.
There is no question that the league is moving toward marginalizing or even entirely eliminating the kickoff, because the high-speed collisions on returns make it one of the most dangerous plays in the game. Last spring, New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the Competition Committee, said if the league could figure out what to do with the onside kick in end-of-game situations, the kickoff might disappear entirely.
But ever since the rule was approved in the spring, coaches have debated its impact. A few argued that there might be an uptick in the use of the mortar kick -- a high, short kick that forces the receiving team into a return while giving the coverage unit plenty of time to pin the returner deep in his own territory. Halfway through the preseason, it is obvious coaches are still trying to figure out how they will approach it when the games count.
Dirk Koetter, the first-year head coach in Tampa Bay, said it is unlikely the Buccaneers will have a hard-and-fast rule for the kickoff.
"Special teams coaches in the league say there is a 3 percent difference between the 25-yard line and the 20-yard line in scoring, so teams that can do it and have a kicker that can do it will be tempted to mortar kick it and try to go down and cover," Koetter said. "We also drafted a kicker in the second round. So depending -- is Devin Hester back there? Some of the returners in this league, you'll say we'll give it to him on the 25. It's nice to have a guy who has the ability to kick it out every time. I think it will change week to week based on weather, the other returner and how good is our coverage team."
The decisions could be critical to game outcomes. In the 2015 season, the Minnesota Vikings were the only team with an average drive-starting position of greater than the 25-yard line (theirs was the 25.5-yard line). Every other team had average drive starts inside the 25 and 12 teams started from the 21-yard line or in. As Koetter noted, it makes a difference in scoring: When teams started on their own 20 in 2015, they scored touchdowns on 17.9 percent of the drives. When they started on the 25-yard line, their touchdown rate jumped to 20.8.
So the experimenting goes on.
The Miami Dolphins have rookie Jakeem Grant returning kickoffs -- he returned two in their preseason opener against the Giants (with a long of 27 yards) and two against the Cowboys (long of 30). Asked if it was worth it to have someone rehearsing returns when there would seem to be a clear advantage to simply taking a touchback, first-year head coach Adam Gase responded: "In the preseason? Absolutely. You want to see what he can do, for one. But then you also want to see the guys up front, how we block things or certain schemes you want to work on. So in the preseason, that's your time to say we're bringing this thing out unless it's X number in the end zone."
Will the philosophy change once the regular season starts?
"I'm sure it will," Gase began. "We'll talk about that when we get there. But who knows? Maybe it won't. Maybe we'll say, 'Let's give this kid a chance to house-call one.' He's a weapon, and he can change field position."