Kick­off rule’s re­sults not as hoped

Num­ber of re­turns rises as Ravens and other teams fight for ex­tra 5 yards

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ed­ward Lee

A new NFL rule meant to de­crease the num­ber of kick­offs that are re­turned has done just the op­po­site.

The Ravens are cov­er­ing more kick­offs and kick­ing fewer touch­backs, and that has lit­tle to do with Justin Tucker’s leg power.

This season, the NFL is ex­per­i­ment­ing with plac­ing touch­backs on kick­offs at the 25-yard line in­stead of the 20, as in pre­vi­ous years. The in­tent was to re­duce the num­ber of high-speed col­li­sions be­tween play­ers that can con­trib­ute to se­ri­ous in­juries.

But while the new rule in­cen­tivizes re­turn­ers to take a knee in the end zone, it makes teams re­luc­tant to con­cede the 25-yard line when kick­ing off. A 5-yard dif­fer­ence might not sound like much, but Ravens spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Jerry Ros­burg does not want to sur­ren­der any ground with­out push­ing back.

“Peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily want t o give up 5 yards,” he said. “We, on spe­cial teams, fight for every inch. If you’re say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to take 5 yards from you,’ we’re go­ing to fight for every inch, not just 5 yards.”

In 2015, nearly 88 per­cent of the Ravens’ kick­offs re­sulted in touch­backs. Through two games this season, six of nine kick­offs (67 per­cent) have been touch­backs.

Ravens coach John Har­baugh crit­i­cized the rule change as not “in the spirit of com­pe­ti­tion.” Har­baugh’s peers such as the Green Bay Pack­ers’ Mike McCar---

thy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid and the Washington Red­skins’ Jay Gru­den have also ques­tioned the new rule.

When own­ers voted on the rule dur­ing the NFL’s an­nual meet­ing in March, it was the sec­ond time in five years the league had tin­kered with kick­offs for safety rea­sons. In 2011, the own­ers agreed to move the spot from which teams kick off from the 30 to the 35-yard line.

That 2011 ad­just­ment worked. In 2010, teams re­turned 80.1 per­cent of all kick­offs. That num­ber fell to 53.5 per­cent in 2011 and dropped to 41.1 per­cent in 2015.

Time will de­ter­mine the ef­fec­tive­ness of the most re­cent change, but so far, the num­bers seem to con­tra­dict the rule’s de­sign.

Through two games this season, 37.3 per­cent of kick­offs have been re­turned. That’s an in­crease from the 30.1 per­cent of kick­offs re­turned through the first two games in 2015.

In the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ 23-21 win over the Ari­zona Car­di­nals on Sept. 11, Pa­tri­ots kicker Stephen Gostkowski landed four of six kick­offs in­side the 5-yard line, forc­ing the Car­di­nals’ An­dre Elling­ton to av­er­age 15.3 yards per re­turn. His best re­turn put the of­fense at the 21.

After the win, New Eng­land coach Bill Belichick summed up what many coaches and spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tors are think­ing.

“We’re go­ing to make them earn how­ever many yards they get,” he said. “We’re go­ing to make them earn them. We’re not go­ing to give them a quar­ter or 25 per­cent of the field. We’re go­ing to make them earn every yard that they get the ball out to. They’re go­ing to have to block, and run, and break a tackle, or what­ever, to gain those yards.”

Cleve­land Browns coach Hue Jack­son said he wouldn’t be sur­prised if more teams fol­lowed “be­cause a lot of peo­ple still truly be­lieve you can kick it short and pin peo­ple in­side the 20. I think there are prob­a­bly more at­tempts at that than any­thing. ... I know as anof­fen­sive coach, I love to have the ball on the 25, in­stead of the 20.”

In the Ravens’ game at Cleve­land on Sun­day, Tucker’s first kick­off of the third quar­ter went to the 5-yard line, where Browns re­turner Ge­orge Atkin­son III caught it. Atkin­son ran for 13 yards be­fore fum­bling. The Browns re­cov­ered, but they were also called for a hold­ing penalty, and be­gan an ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful drive from their 11.

Tucker’s big­gest fear is how the NFL will in­ter­pret the statis­tics and mas­sage them, to per­haps con­sider elim­i­nat­ing kick­offs en­tirely, which — in light of a height­ened aware­ness of con­cus­sions and other in­juries — is a topic that has been floated in the past.

“My con­cern is that the league is go­ing to see more re­turns and they’re go­ing to say, ‘Well, we tried some­thing. So how about we just get rid of the kick­off?’ ” Tucker said. “That would be my con­cern. You don’t say, ‘1 p.m. start from the 20.’ You don’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, the game’s go­ing to be a 1 p.m. start from the 25.’ It’s a 1 p.m. kick­off. You’ve com­pletely changed the game, and you’ve fun­da­men­tally changed the game if you take out such a piv­otal play.”

Fac­tors such as wind, weather and qual­ity of re­turner play a role in the Ravens’ de­ci­sions on kick­offs, ac­cord­ing to Tucker and Ros­burg. And don’t for­get the sig­nif­i­cance of the score late in a game.

“If you’re go­ing into the fourth quar­ter and you’re fac­ing a team that is a high-pow­ered of­fense and you have a one-score lead, you’re go­ing to try to pin them down there,” Ros­burg said. “The 25-yard line might not be ac­cept­able at that point in time. If you have a de­cent lead in the game, you might not risk it and just kick it out of the end zone. It’s not only look­ing at the op­po­nent and look­ing at what their re­turner is like or where you’re at with your kick­off team, it’s also look­ing at the game sit­u­a­tion. The strate­gies will change, I think, play by play.”

So is the touch­back rule flawed? Ros­burg said it isn’t sur­pris­ing that the new rule has in­creased the num­ber of kick re­turns we see.

“I think we all an­tic­i­pated there were go­ing to be more re­turns with the new rule,” he said. “It has come to pass.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Ravens try to stop the Duke John­son Jr. on a kick­off re­turn dur­ing Sun­day’s 25-20 vic­tory over the Browns.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Ravens’ Devin Hester takes a knee against the Browns on Sun­day, a move the NFL’s new rule on kick­off re­turns was in­tended to en­cour­age.

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