On the surface, 5 yards might not seem like much.
But for Rams special team coordinator Tom McMahon and his coaching brethren around the league, 5 yards represents a major change in how they do business moving forward.
A little more than a week ago, the NFL’s competition committee voted to change the kickoff point from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line.
While that might decision isn’t splitting the atom, it will require teams to begin devising schemes and looking at special teams in a way they haven’t since the kickoff point was last at the 35, back in 1993.
“We’ll have to think outside the box even more now,” McMahon said. “The box is different now. The whole box we have worked in for 15-16 years, it’s a different box. You can’t worry about it. Some people don’t like change. I am kind of excited to see what guys come up with. Kickoff coverage and kickoff return is going to be very different.”
Some special teams coaches and talented kick returners around the league spoke out against the rule change immediately, saying that it creates an unfair advantage for kickers and eliminates an exciting part of the game by taking the ball out of the hands of the likes of Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs.
The argument being that kicking off closer to the opponent’s goal line will create more kicks deep in the end zone or out of it. That’s one thing McMahon believes to be certain.
“There will be more touchback and less kickoff returns,” McMahon said. “The other thing it’s going to do is get that kickoff team closer to the point of attack so it’s definitely an advantage if you are looking at the units of kickoff coverage.”
Much has changed in the league in terms of kickoff returns since 1993. That season, there were only four kicks returned for touchdowns and 30 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks.
For point of reference, last season there were 23 kicks returned for touchdowns, 16.7 percent of kicks went for touchbacks and 38.5 percent of kicks reached the end zone.
McMahon expects those numbers to rise again with this change and says that he and assistant special teams coach Derius Swinton have spent time looking at game film from the 1993 season to see how teams operated with the 35 as the starting point.
“We have watched it,” McMahon said. “We got some pretty good film to be honest with you and how guys attacked it. You do go back. You have to. It’s professional football. You owe it to the players and the organization. You have to overturn every single stone and that’s the great thing about Coach Spags is we are going to look at everything we can to try to get an advantage.”
It won’t just be schemes that will be affected by the change. Teams will also have to begin looking at specialists and returners in a little bit different light.
Although some insist that there will now be less value placed on a kick returner and more on a kickoff specialist who can boom the ball out of the end zone, McMahon believes it will actually take on the opposite look.
Of course it will be important to have a kicker who can boot touchbacks on a regular basis but moving it closer will make it easier for guys who might not have previously been able to reach the back of the end zone to do so.
McMahon has also studied film of kickers around the league and in doing so has tacked on 5 additional yards to each kick. The results have been surprising.
“I think it will eliminate the kickoff specialist,” McMahon said. “We have started looking, trying to get ahead a little bit. Look at where balls are landing and giving them 5 extra yards. It’s scary how many balls are landing in the end zone. It’s almost scary shocking.”
The change also means that having a dynamic returner capable of breaking a long return when actually given the opportunity to have one will become even more valuable, McMahon believes.
The motive for the change comes from the league’s desire to protect its players. In recent years, the league has adjusted rules for special teams that have eliminated wedges bigger than two players on returns and forced pressure units to stop putting a lineman directly over the long snapper on kicks and punts.
This change is intended to help eliminate potential head injuries and such sustained on kickoff returns but it could create more collisions because the league has also added a rule that other than the kicker, no player can get more than a 5-yard head start. That will put the kickoff teams within a more confined space that is more likely to lead to players getting rolled up on and leg injuries.
It also means that teams will have to re-evaluate the type of players they are looking at for certain roles within the special teams.
“When you look at every kick returner you can and you put them all in a can, what kind of body type, what kind of player is it going to take now?” McMahon said. “Do you need a bigger guy back there to break tackles or a smaller guy with more speed? You just don’t know. You assume you know because they are closer and the point of attack has shrunk on the ones you return.”
For his part, McMahon believes that there are a few other factors to be considered in looking at the changes. As a coach who doesn’t worry as much about kickoff return average and puts his focus on the average drive start, McMahon believes that punting style and approaches might change as well.
“The other thing that I don’t think a lot of people think of it this way is that drive starts should change, you assume rather than the 26 yard line, the average in the league this year, now it’s the 21,” McMahon said. “That puts more pressure on your punter. If you go and have a drive that stalls and get say 6 yards, now you are punting from the 25 whereas before it was the 32. You need a guy that can change that field a little bit. You want the big legs to change that field. That makes a big difference.”
Because nobody has worked with the 35-yard line as a starting point since 1993, McMahon figures there will be a long period of trial and error for teams as they attempt to figure out the best way to attack each other.
In other words, there will be a bit of a feeling out process as the various aspects of every return and every kick are being figured out. Take the normal idea of when a returner is supposed to bring a return out of the end zone and when he’s supposed to kneel on it as an example.
“You’ll have to be very definite in terms of where you are going to bring the ball out,” McMahon said. “If you are 3 (yards deep) bring it out. There’s a lot to it. I think the answers will come possibly in the preseason. You would hope they would.”
Other special teams coaches around the league have expressed disappointment in the rule changes and the belief that the continued changes to special teams are marginalizing their value.
While McMahon certainly understands that part of it, he also doesn’t allow himself to worry about things he can’t control.
That’s why there is a big part of him that’s excited about the possibilities of working in a revamped world.
“I prefer to focus on the task, that’s my job,” McMahon said. “It’s possible that every year it’s going to change. That’s part of the job.”