How to Fix the NFL Kickoff
1. I think the solution the NFL is seeking to make the kickoff safer, but still an interesting part of the game, is the one that longtime special-teams coach Mike Westhoff has been advocating for years. His idea, which he detailed in a column for The MMQB in 2013, would require eight players on the return team to line up within 10 to 20 yards from the kickoff line, thereby reducing the big collisions that can happen when players are flying downfield at each other with a full head of steam. After the kickoff goes 20 yards in the air, the receiving team has to be first to touch the ball, or it rolls dead. Westhoff’s proposal would also put the kickoff line back at the 25-yard line, making returns almost certain, just with the high-speed collision risk tamped down. Basically, the play becomes more like a punt. With the NFL seeking input from current special-teams coordinators on what to do with the kickoff, as reported by USA Today, the retired Westhoff’s plan endures as a way to satisfy both sides.
2. I think, while we’re on the subject, count me among those who thinks we’ll see fewer kickoff returns this season. That was the intent of the new rule moving touchbacks from the 20- to the 25-yard line, to deter returners from coming out of the end zone. Many have theorized, however, that the opposite will happen—that kicking teams, put off by the idea of giving their opponent an automatic five extra yards on the touchback, will start trying to kick short instead of out of the end zone. Until the games start, there’s no way of knowing which strategy will be used more. But let’s start here: trying to drop a kickoff in the corner of the field isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not the same as coffin-cornering a punt—you have less control of the angle when taking a running start on a kickoff, and unlike punts, you can’t use the sideline to kick out of bounds and pin the opponent deep. “It is definitely a hard thing to do,” said Roberto Aguayo, the Bucs’ second-round pick, who was asked to avoid the touchback on about 70 percent of his kickoffs at Florida State. “Coach Fisher wanted it between the one-yard-line to one yard deep (in the end zone), so the opponent is forced to return it. But, it has to have enough hang time for our coverage guys to get down there; and it can’t be in the middle of the field, it has to be in the corner, so they are forced to take one side. It’s so hard to put it in the corner. Sometimes, it would go out of bounds.” That, of course, would give receiving teams better field position than a touchback. “Dropping it into the corner sounds good, but that’s not going to happen,” Westhoff insists. “I don’t care what anyone says, with the new rule, the NFL will get what it wants. There will be less returns.”
3. I think I did a double-take when I heard Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tell Albert Breer he hopes his incoming freshmen have already had one million to two million “athletic reps” to build their instincts. For a kid who starts playing organized sports at age 6, let’s say, he’d have to average at least 80,000 athletic reps each year, and about 7,000 reps per month, before going to college at age 18. It depends on how you define athletic reps, but Harbaugh made clear he’s not talking about a quarterback practicing his five-step drops. He means real, competitive reps. There’s really no way you could get there if you’re not competing in games and tournaments year-round.
4. I think the hype surrounding Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, the team’s second-round pick out of Oklahoma, is warranted. It’s hard to see much during pad-less offseason practices, but the rookie’s explosiveness and his ability to go up for tough catches (despite his 5-foot-10, 194-pound frame) have been obvious to all observers. Other than Odell Beckham, Jr., Eli Manning lacked consistent options in the passing game last year. With Shepard now in the mix, and Victor Cruz potentially back healthy, Manning should have plenty more this season.
5. I think it’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of the Professional Football Writers of America’s Good Guy Award than Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. He’s thoughtful, honest and respectful of the job the media has to do, regardless of the subject or circumstance. The first time I spoke to Davis was back in February 2013, when I was a Giants beat writer for The Star-Ledger. I was working on a story about the Giants re-signing cornerback Terrell Thomas, who, like Davis, endured three ACL surgeries. I asked Panthers PR if I could speak to Davis about the similarities of their journeys. It was the dead of the offseason, the Panthers were coming off a losing season, and I was not writing about Davis’ team, but one of his opponents. But 15 minutes later, Davis was calling me, describing in detail the hardest moments of his football career and how he used his comeback to encourage Thomas with weekly text messages. As the Panthers have become one of the best teams in the NFL over the past few years, and Davis’ star has continued to rise on and off the field, his approachability has never changed.
6. I think I disagree with the argument that Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams make Muhammad Wilkerson expendable. Both are wild cards of sorts: Richardson may be facing his second suspension by the NFL in two years, this time for a 2015 arrest, and Williams is still a developing player entering his second year. Wilkerson has been an anchor of the defensive line since he was drafted in 2011. What happened here boils down to this: The team didn’t lock him up early, the defensive line market got out of control and now the Jets don’t have the resources to keep him long term after their 2015 spending spree. But Wilkerson is anything but expendable; he’s the one piece you can count on.
7. I think kudos are in order for the inventors of High and Tight, the $150 high-tech football that emits a beeping sound of 80 decibels when a ballcarrier is securing the football correctly. They know their market: coaches will try anything to get players to stop fumbling!
8. I think, amid the Bills’ stadium speculation, let me add mine: They will open the 2023 season in a newly constructed New Era Cap Stadium, located in the downtown Pegula empire.
9. I think GQ did a fascinating profile of Hope Hicks, the 27-year-old daughter of former NFL PR exec Paul Hicks, who is the accidental press secretary for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
10. I think we hear a lot about the perils of social media, but the events this week in Congress were a reminder of the platforms’ usefulness. Who could have thought, even a year or two ago, that Facebook Live or Periscope would be the only way we’d get to watch the House Democrats’ overnight sit-in to force a vote on gun control? The public being able to see every second live all night, even after the C-SPAN cameras were shut down by the Republicans, was more powerful than any form of traditional media platform could have delivered.
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