Seahawks among most affected by new kickoff rules
Leon Washington put the Seattle Seahawks' dominant special teams unit on full display with a two-touchdown performance in a win over San Diego last September.
With the offense sputtering and a defense prone to giving up the big play, Washington returned two kickoffs for scores and nearly had a third in a 27-20 win over the Chargers on Sept. 26.
It was not a surprise that Washington did so well - 2010 was the second season of his career in which he took three kicks back for touchdowns, and his work on special teams with the New York Jets in 2008 made him a first-team All-Pro.
Under the NFL's new kickoff return rules, none of those things would have happened.
In an effort to curb collision-related injuries on high-speed returns, the league has implemented a number of changes to the structure of the kickoff.
The ball has been moved up from the kicking team's 30 to its 35, leading to many more balls going in the end zone of the receiving team and reducing the incentive to bring the ball out. In addition, the kicker is the only player on the kicking team allowed to take a running start before the ball is put in play.
The new rules have not affected yardage, but strategy has changed in a major way. In the 2011 preseason, kickoff returns have averaged 25.4 yards, actually ahead of the 2010 preseason average of 24.5. But the average weekly number of returned kickoffs has plummeted - from 123 per week in 2010 to 85 now.
Asked about his first response to the changes, Washington was succinct - and definite.
''Nothing I can say in public,'' he said. ''You have to understand with the NFL, safety is their priority. So, I definitely understand that part. But for teams like us, Chicago, Arizona, Cleveland, it's a big deal to win the field position battle with special teams, and now, they're taking that part of the game away from us. We can't control the rule; we just have to take advantage of the opportunities that we do get.''
And that's an important aspect of the new rule.
Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for FOX Sports, has said that the rule unfairly penalizes teams that have put a roster priority on their return units.
One adjustment to the rule the league wanted to make that was voted down by the coaches was to put all touchbacks at the 25 of the return team instead of the 20. That was a step to balance things out, but as Washington noted, other coaches weren't ready to make that sacrifice.
''More defensive coaches were saying, 'Oh, no, you can't bring the ball out to the 25!''' he said. ''That instantly flips the field position. It's just going to be tough for those teams whose offenses don't play well. And if you're going to a place like Denver, where we are, and the air's thin, your offense had better be clicking. Be prepared to have 80-yard drives.''
Asked how teams are preparing differently on kick return blocking, Washington said that there's little change so far.
''We're preparing the same. We're not doing anything different, and the coaching that's been given to me with the return team is that if you have the opportunity to bring it out, we're going to do it.''
Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider mentioned that the angles of the kicks will change, and coverage responsibilities are now different, but his primary concern echoed Washington's: with a smaller focus on excellent kick returners and return coverage players, those roster spots will go to other types of players.
''More and more, it's a priority for players to be able to do a lot of things,'' Schneider said.
Washington, who has rushed for 1,882 yards and 14 touchdowns in his five-year career, will be featured more in Seattle's offensive game plan. That's the side benefit for some returners, and Washington believes there could be more of those players on the way.
''I can see someone like (Arizona running back) LaRod Stephens-Howling - you saw him play a little bit of offense last year. He could get more of a role and get touches in that offense. It's going to take some coaching strategy to get some of those guys in the return game to get them more utilized on offense. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out.''
For Washington, it will have to play out on offense, in a running back rotation. For Chicago's Devin Hester, it's been a larger role as a receiver over the last few years. For Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, it will surely be the same, sooner than later.
When it comes to kickoffs, the specialists are no longer stars.