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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Holding out hope for kickoff returns

By Kevin Seifert

Harvin/Cobb
Minnesota's Percy Harvin and Green Bay's Randall Cobb both returned kickoffs for touchdowns in Week 1.
Stop wringing your hands. Put away your shovels. It's not quite time to bury the kickoff return, at least not in these parts.

NFC North teams returned two kickoffs 100-plus yards for touchdowns in Week 1, making it difficult -- at least for the moment -- to gauge the true impact of a new rule that moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line. We have all assumed that returns would be diminished, but in one week the NFC North matched its combined 2010 total.

So what do we make of Green Bay Packers rookie Randall Cobb and the Minnesota Vikings returner Percy Harvinboth taking it to the house in Week 1? How do we reconcile the fact that 54.5 percent of kickoffs in our games (24 of 44) went for touchbacks while also accepting that the 20 returns included efforts of 108, 103, 78 and 57 yards?

Was it a Week 1 fluke that will even out over time? Or did we learn an important lesson right out of the gates?

For what it's worth, I'm going to take the latter position. Here's what Week 1 told me: Don't allow your opponent to neutralize a dynamic returner if you have one. You can't take every deep kick out of the end zone, but any hard-and-fast rule about bringing it out might give too much respect to the new rule.

Many of us have overlooked the potential impact of a secondary portion of the change. Yes, kickers are 5 yards closer to the end zone and coverage teams have 5 less yards to account for. But cover men also are limited to a 5-yard head start before the kick, and I don't think we fully understand yet how much impact that limitation will have.

It's worth considering, at least, that overreacting to the new rule is a bigger mistake than ignoring it.

Consider Cobb's return (via NFL.com), which began 8 yards deep in the end zone and directly violated the Packers' standard of accepting a touchback on anything 5 yards or deeper in the end zone. Two Saints cover men were close to converging on him at the 10-yard line, but one was blocked and the other couldn't slow down in time to get in position for a tackle.

No one touched Cobb, in fact, until he reached the Saints' 30-yard line. After some help from teammate John Kuhn, Cobb rebalanced himself and won a footrace over the final 70 yards for the score.

I suppose there are multiple ways to evaluate that play, but I looked at it and saw two lead cover men whose acceleration and deceleration were altered by the new positioning. I saw a superior athlete outrun the rest of the group, and I saw a play that could happen again if provided the right opportunity.

Now take a look at Harvin's return. As with Cobb, you see a member of the Chargers coverage team reach him at the 10-yard line. But Darrell Stuckeywas still in full sprint when he got to the 10 and was in no position to break down and make a tackle. Stuckey's miss gave Harvin an opportunity to reach full speed, and the advantage switches to the returning team when an elite open-field runner gets to that point.

Look, I'm not purporting to be a special-teams expert here. I'm just suggesting there are many ways to view this issue. All four NFC North teams have potentially elite returners when you add the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester and the Detroit Lions' Stefan Logan to the mix. Allowing opponents to dictate their exclusion from the game would seem an overreaction to me. I'd like to see them return more kicks, not less, and at least see what happens.

Harvin, for one, said he knew he had a touchdown the moment he reached full speed. Cobb, meanwhile, acknowledged that coaches weren't happy he brought out the kick and made a point to note he didn't do it again. But to me, his touchdown return was an argument for the opposite: Allowing a game-breaking returner the flexibility to take back a kick from any point in the end zone.

"You've got to make the most of your opportunities and the chances that you do get," Cobb said.

I agree.

The risk, of course, is getting tackled inside the 20-yard line, where a touchback would otherwise be marked. The second chart notes where each NFC North team opened its average drive after kickoffs in Week 1. Predictably, they were all over the map. The Atlanta Falconsmostly bottled up Hester, while the returns of Cobb and Harvin inflated the numbers for Green Bay and Minnesota, respectively.

Those figures will balance over time. But don't you think Hester and Logan will eventually pop a big one? And would you exchange such a big play for a few drives starting inside the 20-yard line?

The latter obviously didn't hurt the Bears' offense Sunday. Five of their scoring drives started between their 8- and 28-yard lines.

It's quite possible that by the end of this season, all of our fears about the kickoff rule change will be realized. Maybe we've seen all we're going to see. But Week 1 told us not to give up quite yet.

In recent history, based on the excellent database over at pro-football-reference.com, teams that have return a kickoff for a touchdown win two-thirds of the games in those instances. Obviously, the NFL average winning percentage is 50 percent. If there is a play available that can substantively add to your chances of victory, wouldn't you look for every way possible to preserve it?