The first round of preseason games has given fans their first opportunity to see the league’s new kickoff rules in action. Teams now kickoff from the 35-yard line, five yards closer than previously, and coverage teams are only allowed to a five yard running start.
The rule changes were made in the name of player safety but vocal early detractors are already bemoaning an increase in touchbacks. That may be the result of the rule changes through one week, but it doesn’t have to be.
There are two ways to think about kickoff situations. One, the kicker requires five fewer yards to kick the ball out of the back of the endzone, therefore touchbacks will increase. Two, coverage teams have five fewer yards to run down the field, therefore kick returns will get shorter.
The first situation mentioned above has been getting plenty of ink while the second goes mostly ignored. I’m not convinced that special teams coaches will be content have their kicker boom kicks for touchbacks on every kickoff. Putting the opposing offense on the 20-yard line is nice, but having them start on the 15-yard line is better.
I was interested to see the Lions in action last Friday for a variety of reasons but I wanted to pay special attention to what they did on kickoffs. I was mostly pleased with what I saw. Yes, the Lions did boot a couple deep for touchbacks but they also took advantage of the “5-yard head start” for their coverage and dropped kicks just inside the end zone. The first such kick resulted in a fumble recover while the other resulted in starting field position for the Bengals inside their own 15-yard line.
It was just one game but it helped prove the point that just because the new rules may allow for a dramatic increase in touchbacks there are strategic reasons for doing otherwsie. The risk is giving up a big return, but the rewards may be far greater.