The NFL's new rule that will bring the ball out to the 25-yard line on touchbacks might not seem like a major change. Five yards, right? But that slight bump in free field position for the offense -- which the league says was in response to an increased number of injuries on kickoff returns -- will have a major impact on kicking strategy and personnel.
Talking with some NFL coaches on Thursday, they want to use the "sky" kick more after this rule change. Put that thing up high in the air and drop it in the bucket near the goal line. Hey, even kick it to the corner and give yourself a bigger advantage. Nowhere to hide there. Let's go.
Why? It's field position. That's a never-ending battle in the pros, and five yards is too valuable to concede. Teams are going to change they way the game plan because of it.
For starters, that's going to drop the value of the strong-legged kicker who lacks the ability to place a kickoff down the field. Forget launching that thing in the end zone when you have a kicker who can control the ball. That's going to sell.
Sure, the kickers without the massive legs might not be able to hit a field goal from 55. But given the new opportunities on kickoffs, and the amount of PATs missed this past season with the ball moved back to the 15-yard line, there will be a new premium put on kickers with accuracy.
"They brought skill and the ability to handle pressure back to the kicking position versus just being a strong leg," an AFC coach told me.
The kickoff has become a dead play, a time for fans to grab another beer. It's boring. Useless, even. A conditioning drill. And it has also lowered the impact (and overall value) of coverage guys who can flat-out fly down the field, finish tackles and change the course of the game by making big plays on special teams.
This rule change -- designed, in theory, to limit returns even more -- will ironically end up having the opposite effect based on the coaches I've talked to. Maybe this means the return of the top-flight (and borderline crazy) coverage men too. Maybe they'll finally get a chance to make some plays again. Hey, win with speed down the field to deliver some hits on the returner.
That's how you set the tempo to start a football game. Dictate with physicality. That has been missing, in my opinion, since the league moved the ball up to the 35-yard line of kickoffs.
There's real technique involved in covering a kick at the NFL level. Think about the ability to stack and shed, defeat a block, maintain lane discipline and tackle -- in space. You have to do that after navigating rush-hour traffic on the field. Lot of moving parts. Bodies everywhere. Bring your big boy pads to get down there. And play fast.
Those are developmental tools also, the basic fundamentals of defensive football. Can you use your hands, create angles to the ball and make plays in the open field? That advances the learning curve for young rookies and rewards the weathered vets who can still make tackles inside of the 20-yard line. Value. Make a career in the league, right?
Teams that have the accurate kicking and true, two-deep depth at linebacker/defensive back (the soul of the special teams coverage units) will shine this season when the kickoff rises back to the surface. It's coming: corner kicks and real pressure on the return team to create field position.
No one is giving away a free pass to start drives at the 25-yard line. That's too easy. Teams will have to earn it now.