Special teams coaches throughout the NFL are having a particularly busy offseason.
Since league owners voted in March to outlaw the use of a blocking wedge involving three or more players on kickoff returns, the men who choreograph the organized chaos that is the kicking game have been working on and teaching alternative tactics to be used during the 2009 season.
Renowned Buffalo Bills special teams coach Bobby April said the wedge has been "the essence of the kickoff return, the point of attack. So to eliminate that part is really eliminating a big part of that particular play."
But the league's competition committee determined that too many players were being injured, either while colliding with the wedge or from being a part of it, and recommended its banishment for safety reasons. Now, having any more than two blockers within two yards of each other on the same plane in front of a kickoff returner will result in a 15-yard penalty.
The challenge facing Toub, April, and the rest of the NFL's special teams brain trust is figuring out how to do more, or at least as much, with less. Most teams had a minimum of three players closely bunched in front of the return man, forming a human plow blade (or wedge) to clear a path through the first wave of would-be tacklers. Others would use four and, in rare cases, as many as five.
For the Bills, who consistently used a three-man wedge, it wouldn't seem like such a big deal to take away one member of that group. But it is.
"The wedge is like the offensive line," April said. "For us, we have to reduce that line by 33 percent. What would happen if you reduced the offensive line in the running game by 33 percent? Or, in the case of a four-man wedge, what if you reduced it by 50 percent? You'd have a little different running game."
April and several other special-teams coaches in the NFL anticipate that there will be a noticeable decrease in average yards per kickoff return, at least during the 2009 season while clubs become acclimated with the new rule. That's a very big deal for an offensive-challenged team such as the Bills, who rely so heavily on favorable field position. Thanks in large part to strong kick returns, the Bills led the league in average drive start last season.
Removing the wedge doesn't necessarily mean teams can't be successful on kickoff returns. It just requires some different strategies.
"The offseason is where we really look at it and practice some different things," Toub said. "Everybody's working on it. We have a system right now that we're practicing. We're kind of tweaking it."
Other rules changes
The elimination of the blocking wedge isn't the only rule change that will impact the kicking game during the 2009 NFL season.
There are two others: Teams no longer will be allowed to bunch players to one side of the line on onsides-kick attempts and a 15-yard penalty will be assessed for a blindside (or peel-back) block involving helmet, forearm, or shoulder contact with the head of a defender on returns.
The Buffalo Bills were about the only team that did bunching for onsides kicks. They would tightly pack five players between the hash marks on either side of kicker Rian Lindell. As his quick pooch kick rolled the requisite 10 yards, he and his 10 teammates would converge on it like an avalanche, which was what Bills special teams coach Bobby April called the tactic. The league's competition committee determined it was too much of an injury risk -- particularly for the receiving team -- but that seems debatable given that few, if any other teams, do onsides-kick bunching.
Several special teams coaches are concerned that officials will have a difficult time determining when to penalize blockers for making contact with the head of would-be tacklers given how often and dramatically that returners change directions.
Many special teams coaches expect the bulk of the league to take a back-to-the-future approach, with clubs reviving the "match return" that was popular in the mid- to late-1990s. The tactic simply had 10 blockers each matching up with 10 members of the coverage unit while the returner ran through the first opening he found rather than the zone concept of trying to outnumber would-be tacklers in a given area with three or more blockers.
"It was almost like a punt return where each blocker had a guy, he tried to hold him up, and the returner ran for daylight," April said. "I could see where people could end up doing a lot of that, because it's been a successful return in this league fairly recently."
"You're going to see more man schemes," Toub said. "Everybody will have a man. There won't be any more zone blocking with the wedge."
Don't be surprised if some clubs try taking advantage of a loophole in how the banning of the wedge will be enforced. April recently spoke with NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira, who explained that officials will watch how the blocking forms at the time the return man fields the ball and determine whether there is a violation at that point. A flag won't be thrown if only two blockers are within two yards of each other, on the same plane, in front of the returner. And it wouldn't be a violation if two additional blockers were positioned in front of the other set of two, turning the wedge into sort of a box, when the ball is caught. That is a conclusion that special teams coaches have drawn from watching a DVD that league officiating crews have been showing to coaches as examples of what will and won't be penalized.
"I think that could be something people start trying to go to," Tennessee Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry said. "It's going to be interesting."
Tougher adjustment for some teams than others
The Titans probably face the easiest transition, because their kickoff-return strategy is as varied as any in the league. They have used combinations of five, four, three, and even two blockers mostly in an effort to keep the opposition off-balance from week-to-week and return-to-return.
"Most of the time, when we went with just two, it was so that we could start right into the middle of the field and then be able to bounce one way or the other," Lowry said. "We'd tell our guys which way were going to bounce, and try to set up blocks (accordingly)."
One team that relied heavily on wedge-style returns, and could have the hardest time adjusting to the new rule, is the New York Giants. Giants frequently used a four-man wedge, and asked their kickoff returners to pretty much attack the first opening he found up the middle. The same is true with the Bears' Danieal Manning, who has done extremely well behind a three-man wedge.
So far, there are no plans to take them off kickoff returns or reduce their involvement. However, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Bears employ Devin Hester, whose free-wheeling return style makes him one of the more dangerous punt returners in the NFL, on more kickoff returns.
Bigger changes are expected to occur among the blockers that teams use.
"It'll be different type guys back there, probably a little bit more athletic," Toub said. "You'd use D-linemen or O-linemen at times, but now you can't use those guys because they've got to be able to block in space. One of those two guys is going to probably be more of an athletic type of guy because he's got to be able to block a man in space -- a linebacker, fullback type of guy."
Consequently, larger and less athletic players who are near the bottom of the depth charts at their respective positions are less likely to be activated on game day (or even make the final roster cut) than they were previously.
-- Bobby April
Another area heavily impacted by the elimination of the wedge is kickoff coverage, where adjustments also are being made.
"The coverage is going to be different," Toub said. "Before, guys would come down and say, 'OK, there's the wedge, I know where the return is going.' That freed up your mind to play fast on kickoff coverage. Now when you come down, you have a man blocking you. You don't know exactly where that point of attack is. It's kind of like covering a punt where you have a guy that's blocking you down the field on a punt return. The return can actually hit anywhere so it makes coverage a lot tougher. You have to be ready to shed your man and run to the ball."
Such maneuverability will likely be taken into account when special teams coaches choose players for kickoff coverage.
Which side will have a greater advantage, the return or coverage unit? Most special teams coaches say that, for at least one season, the edge goes to the coverage guys.
"League-wide, it's going to take all of us a little while to make adjustments," April said. "Then, in a year or so, you'll start seeing an improvement. It's an adjustment, but it's not anything that's going to radically change the beauty of the return. The excitement of the return is going to be there. It's just a little bit unknown how people will adapt and how they'll deploy their guys."