The NFL’s new touchback rule was supposed to decrease the amount of kick returns, but the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are leading a charge to skirt the spirit of the rule and pin opponents deep.
While players have the option to kneel in the end zone for a touchback instead of attempting to return a kickoff, the Patriots and Ravens are intentionally kicking short of the end zone to avoid giving that option.
When the NFL made the decision to award touchbacks with field position at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line, it was met with debate whether the intended outcome would occur.
What the league hoped for was an increase in the amount of touchbacks thanks to the extra incentive for not running back the kickoff, but not everyone was so convinced it would work out that way.
"I think it will have the opposite effect than the Competition Committee expects," former NFL kicker Jay Feely told NFL.com when the rule was adopted as a one-year experiment in March. "Every NFL kicker I talked to said he would change to a high, short kick to the goal line. It's not hard to do at all. The hard part will be the amount of hang time. The best kickers will be able to get 4.4 to 4.6 hang time kicking it to the goal line."
Not every kicker can get the necessary hang time, but that’s when a truly great one like Stephen Gostkowski or Justin Tucker can become a weapon. The Patriots’ four-time Pro Bowl kicker had no problem booting the opening kickoff through the end zone in Week 3, but on the next kickoff Bill Belichick didn’t think twice about trying to pin the Houston Texans deeper than the 25-yard line.
Showtime’s Inside the NFL had a microphone on Belichick that captured the moment.
"It’s pretty intimidating when we have 10 guys inside the 20 waiting for them," Gostkowski told the Boston Globe after the Patriots’ Week 3 win. "Who knows, maybe I’ll even run down there one time."
Gostkowski’s boast of "10 guys inside the 20" is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. On the fumble by James on the short kickoff ordered by Belichick, there were eight New England special teamers inside the 35 when James fielded the kickoff at the goal line.
First contact on the kickoff return was made at the 15-yard line and resulted in a fumble that was recovered by the Patriots.
Through three weeks, eight of the Patriots’ 18 kickoffs have been returned for an average of 15.9 yards and seven of the Ravens’ 14 kickoffs have been returned for an average of 14.7 yards.
"I'm a special teams coach. I like kickoffs and kickoff returns," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told the Baltimore Sun in March, days before the rule change was adopted. "It's going to be really hard for us to say, 'Hey we're going to surrender the 25-yard line as a kickoff coverage team.' That's really not in the spirit of competition and what we're trying to accomplish here."
What the NFL was looking to create was a safer game by encouraging more players to settle for touchbacks, but through three weeks of the 2016 season, it doesn’t appear to be working.
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