Friday, August 21, 2009

Kickoff Returns Are Going To Suck This Year

Death Of The Wedge

You can put me in the camp of people who disagree with the NFL's decision to ban wedge blocking on kickoff returns. I realize that it is supposedly a safety issue but it just seems like people have been using that kind of blocking on kickoff returns for time immortal and I can't recall it having that much of an effect on players getting hurt. In my experience as a matter of fact players were a lot more likely to get hurt covering a kickoff if they got blind sided by a frontline guy rather than just busting up a wedge which has always been considered a kind of right of passage for special teams guys.

I think the result of the prohibition on anything more than two man wedges will also lead to pretty boring kickoff returns this year too and the league average will almost undoubtedly go down. There are basically two major reasons for this.

The first reason is that by taking the wedge out of any opposing team's playbook you help every special teams coach because now they can focus exclusively on so called "matched up" returns where by the return team usually assigns one blocker for every one cover guy. You have to remember that most teams line up the same way every time on kickoff return before the ball is kicked. Then after the ball is actually kicked and while the ball is in the air the guys running down to cover the kick have to diagnose what kind of a return it is on the fly. Taking away wedge blocking substantially cuts down on what kind of return the cover guys will have to recognize. Think of it this way, how much would it help a defensive coordinator to know that an opposing team couldn't use a split back set? Or that they could never run a trap play?

A whole lot, that's how much.

The second reason is that by making teams go to almost exclusively matched up concepts on kickoff returns the league has now put special teams coaches in the unenviable bind of having to find top line "in space" blockers to put on the kickoff return teams. One major advantage of running a wedge return was that you could put some of your bigger less athletic guys on the back line, let them come together, and then just take off together in a straight line blocking whomever came into their area. With a matched up scheme those guys would have to pick a guy running down full speed for 30 yards or so with plenty of room to move laterally in either direction and try to block that person for long enough so that the return man can get by them. Keep in mind that All 10 guys not returning they kick will have a huge onus on them to make their blocks because unlike a wedge that could usually account for someone missing their block, if one guy misses their block in a matched up scheme, the guy they didn't block will more than likely go down and blow up the return guy.

Now I would like to think that this rule will spark some kind of innovation on the part of special teams coaches but I don't have much confidence that that will happen. So you can expect that for the most part this year the most exciting kickoff returns you are likely to see might go 40 yards at the most. But take heart in knowing that after the returns fall off so badly this year, I am pretty sure the competition committee will revisit the rule next year because while safety is nice, the NFL is definitely all about entertaining folks and making money. They will find a way to allow wedges again, you just wait and see.

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