ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have a kicking conundrum, just like the rest of the NFL.
New rules putting kickoffs at the 35-yard line were designed to prevent injuries caused by high-speed collisions in the return game, but moving the placement five yards nearer midfield also took much of the drama out of special teams. Just about every kicker in the NFL now has the ability to boom the ball into the end zone.
The decision that coaches face is whether to actually do that.
Kansas City has been toying in training camp with a variety of popup and directional kicks, hoping speed in the coverage unit will allow it to trap opposing teams inside the 20. While they didn’t have much of a chance to try out their plan in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay — the Chiefs were shut out, so they only kicked off once — they are likely to experiment more Friday night at Baltimore.
“There may be games where we say, ‘Hey, we can hang this ball up and try to get it to come down and the goal line and maybe we feel comfortable trying to get them inside the 20,’” Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop said. “And then there may be times — obviously every returner is dangerous — but there may be times where, ‘You know what? We don’t want to mess with this guy. Let’s try to line drive it out of the end zone.’”
The new rules should be helpful to Succop, who managed a touchback on just 10 percent of his kickoffs a year ago. League leader Billy Cundiff of the Ravens put the ball in the end zone without a return on 50.6 percent of his tries.
There’s a good chance that kind of discrepancy won’t exist anymore.
“I don’t know if it negates the advantage; I think it equalizes it somewhat,” said Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. “Guys can now do what Billy did very, very well, and they can do it much easier.”
There’ll be more decisions to make than simply taking into account who is returning kicks, though, and therein lies the chess game for the coaches.
First, they will have to decide whether having the ball at the 20 is a win for the offense or defense — or neither side. Kansas City head coach Todd Haley said he would normally consider it a win for the team kicking off, but that may change with new ways in which they can bottle teams up closer to the goal line.
That was evident on the first kickoff last Friday night against Tampa Bay, when Quentin Lawrence decided to bring out a ball kicked about 5 yards deep in the end zone. He was brought down at the 8, giving Kansas City some lousy field position to begin its first preseason game.
“It’s very tempting to bring the ball out,” Chiefs returner Dexter McCluster said. “It’s up to the off returner to slow us down, but as a competitor, as a kickoff returner, we’re going to want to be bringing it out sometimes.”
Another decision coaches will have to make concerns personnel.
Wide receivers and cornerbacks who might otherwise have returned kicks could be pulled off special teams duty entirely, because the number of chances they’ll have to impact the game has dwindled to the point where it’s not worth the injury risk. By the same token, a young player may find it harder to break into the league because they no longer have the same chances to distinguish themselves on coverage.
“One of the ways I would try to make that team is I would show up on kickoff coverage and go make tackles and be the first guy downfield,” Rosburg said. “That’s an age-old method. They really don’t have that opportunity right now, other than the fact that they’re running through the end zone and trying to look fast.”
Rosburg is among numerous coaches and players who are unhappy with the rule change, while most kickers seem to be in favor of it. Besides making it easier to kick touchbacks, it could make it easier to land a job.
Even though Succop is firmly entrenched as the Chiefs’ starter, they felt compelled to sign free agent Todd Carter to ramp up the competition. He’s known for the hang-time on kickoffs and his directional kicking ability.
“When you think about what the NFL is trying to do, and that is really reduce the number of injuries and the big-time collisions on kickoffs, I think they’re getting what they wanted out of that,” Succop said. “Right now a lot of people are thinking it’s going to be touchbacks every single time you kick off, and I think early on you’ll see a lot of that. As the weather turns and it gets cold and guys’ legs wear out, it won’t be a touchback every time.
“It’s definitely going to be a lot different,” he added, “but we’re going to adjust for it.”