NFL coaches are rallying to avoid the death of the kickoff

Kansas City Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub was sitting across from Troy Vincent at the NFL head coaches symposium in Orlando in March, just laughing and joking, when a friendly conversation over breakfast suddenly turned serious.

“Hey man, get ready — they’re going to take the kickoff away,” said Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for football ops.

It was exactly the news Toub, 55, had been dreading. The architect of the dynamite Devin Hester-led Chicago Bears special teams from several years ago, Toub has long established himself as one of the league’s very best at his craft, so the concept of losing kickoffs and kickoff returns — two of the six special teams phases he’s responsible for — was abjectly terrifying, not only to him, but to the league’s other 31 special teams coordinators, as well.

“You can’t do that, Troy,” Toub said, adamantly. “No freaking way. There’s got to be a step in between that.”

There was, it turns out, even though the concussion-conscious NFL has long been working on ways to reduce the violence of kickoffs. Statistics compiled by the league show that concussions are five times more likely to occur on those plays than others, and although those changes — which included moving the kickoff spot up 5 yards — have reduced the number of returns, they haven’t actually reduced the rate of concussions on the play, which Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy recently called “by far the most dangerous” in the game.

Still, the potential abolishment of the kickoff has been met with lots of resistance among special teams coaches who fear the elimination of the play — which incorporates significant strategy and thus, allows them to shine — would also lead to a league-wide de-emphasis of the special-teamer. This would not only have an impact on how teams construct rosters, as special teams help decide backup spots at the 53-man deadline, but could also lead to a reduction of special teams jobs across the leagues. Most teams currently have a special teams coach and a special teams assistant, but would the assistant really be needed if there was 33 percent less work to do on the surface? The NFL is, more than anything else, a business, so coaches really don’t want to find out.

“I told [Chiefs coach] Andy [Reid], I might have to get ready to be a tight ends coach,” Toub said with a laugh. “You’re not just taking kickoff away — you’re taking two phases, you’re taking all those jobs. That’s a drastic thing. Nobody wants the kickoff to go away.”

So when Vincent told Toub there was something he could indeed do, he couldn’t help but say yes. In early May, Toub and approximately eight other NFL special teams coaches gathered with members of the league’s competition committee for the player safety summit at the league’s offices in New York with the goal of coming up with a proposal that would allow them to keep the play, all while making it safer.

The special teams coaches took the responsibility so seriously, Toub said, that they’d talked enough in the weeks leading up to the meeting to have an idea of what they wanted to do before they even got there. By the end of the two-day summit, lots of ideas had been discussed, but only one proposal was agreed upon because they didn’t want to risk muddying the water. The proposal proceeded to be approved, largely unscathed, by the owners only a few weeks later.

The rule changes that will go into effect this season will effectively eliminate a number of dangerous blocks — including wedge and jump-set blocks — and severely limit the number of double-team blocks faced by players on the kick coverage squad. They will also reduce the five-yard running start coverage players got at the outset of the play, mandate that five coverage players are on both sides of the kicker at the beginning of the play (thus changing the look of onside kicks) and force at least eight players on the return squad to be in a 15-yard “setup zone” prior to the kickoff.

“It won’t be offensive linemen blocking skill players — it’s going to be a speed and skill play now,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said.

NFL coaches are optimistic the kickoff won’t be entirely eliminated one day, but never say never. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
NFL coaches are optimistic the kickoff won’t be entirely eliminated one day, but never say never. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The hope is the changes will not only reduce the number of massive collisions that frequently occur during kickoffs, but also the speed at which those collisions occur, all in hopes of reducing the number of concussions suffered on the play.

At the end of the day, we need less guys injured on that play,” said Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, another widely respected coach who was one of the nine who corroborated on the kickoff changes. “I think we can get there, too. I think if you teach blocking correctly, you teach taking on blocks correctly, you teach tackling correctly, you have a chance to keep guys healthier.”

Special teams coaches have also noted over the past week that they expect the new rules will have an impact on the type of returner you see back there on kickoffs on Sunday. With kickoffs effectively functioning more like punts now, it’s reasonable to expect more shifty, quick, make-you-miss types on returns, since you can’t really scheme it toward a certain gap anymore. Think guys who are more Devin Hester (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), and less Cordarrelle Patterson (6-foot-2, 220).

You aren’t going to have the point of attack where you are hitting it and you have a running back style, like an iso play,” Toub said.

It’s unclear, of course, whether these changes will indeed reduce the number of concussions suffered on the play. But the good news for special teams coaches is that the league seems committed to exploring every option before it eliminates kickoffs, even beyond this season.

Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, told Yahoo Sports that he believes there are more steps to be taken and more rule changes that can be enacted before the league will give up on kickoffs. Coaches seem to agree.

“It made a lot of sense to take it in steps,” Toub said. “To do it this way, and now, if this doesn’t work, then you go to the next level.”

One idea that was tossed around, for instance, was giving the kicking team a point for kicking it through the uprights.

“We’re going to be for that — we have [Pro Bowl kicker Justin] Tucker, right?” joked Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator.

Another idea that was discussed and tabled for later (which Toub liked) was tweaking the rules to make the play even more like a punt return, which is still a possibility down the road.

But for now, coaches like Toub seem to be content with the recently enacted rule changes, as early returns are positive after they’ve had a chance to get in the lab and practice some new approaches to the play the last few weeks of organized team activities.

“I really believe we’ve got something,” Toub said. “It looks like we’re getting what we thought we were going to get — two groups, running down the field together, not running at each other. We’re going to get more returns.”

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