By: Ian Logue
For nearly the first 10-years of Bill Belichick’s tenure in the NFL, special teams was a big part of his world.
He got his start as a special teams assistant, and obviously became one of the best in the league, which was how he worked his way up to where he is today. He understands all the little intricacies of the return game, and now thanks to the recent rule changes, his world has changed a bit thanks to the decision by the powers-that-be to move the kickoffs up 5-yards.
That topic was a big part of yesterday’s discussions during his daily press conference. In a conversation with reporters, Belichick felt that part of the decision to make the change was so that the league could cut down the number of returns in a given game. From what he’s seen so far, he expects that number to potentially be cut in half, and now feels that the importance in the return game may center around punts more than the kickoffs.
“I think, really, you’ve got to think about it. If, instead of covering 60 kickoffs in a year, you think you’re only going to be covering 30, then is that coverage player as important?”, said Belichick. “Or on the flipside of it, in the return game, if you’re going to be returning 30 instead of 60, is what the guys who block on the kickoff return – or if you have a designated kickoff returner, if you think you’re going to be returning more punts than kickoffs – I’d say usually, it’s the other way around, you’re going to be returning more kickoffs than punts. But if you think you’re going to be returning more punts than kickoffs, then maybe you put more of a priority on your punt returner than your kickoff returner, just as an example. So yeah, I think it affects it to some degree.”
With the new rule changes, it’s going to be interesting to see if Brandon Tate survives the final cutdown. (FILE:Icon/SMI)
Belichick also pointed out that the change had some effect on the field position for New England last Thursday night against Jacksonville. During a kickoff return for the Jaguars, the Patriots tackled Deji Karim at their own 11-yard line, and after forcing a punt, saw them gain great field position thanks to a 14-yard shank by Matt Turk that gave New England the ball at the Jacksonville 32-yard line.
Four plays later Stevan Ridley was in the endzone, and it’s moments like that which makes Belichick believe we’ll see more of that this season.
“Field position is part of the equation. There are a lot of other things involved, but again, just on the whole thing, I think part of it gets down to how you feel you match up against your opponent,” explained Belichick. “My guess would be, with all other things being equal, Chicago would see more touchbacks than some other teams would. But they may not because of the conditions that they play in – that may not statistically show up.
“But I think if they played on the same field as the other 31 teams in the same conditions, if you had a chance to kick it out of the end zone or not kick it out of the end zone, you would probably chose to kick it out of the end zone, if your kicker could do that. I think that’s part of it, but with the field position that can be created on kickoffs – again, as it was explained to me, what the league and the competition committee were trying to do was eliminate the kickoff returns, which I think they’ll do. They’ll eliminate a lot of them, particularly early in the season when weather is less of a factor.
“Then that creates some other opportunities and certainly there’s an opportunity for more momentum in the game, just like we saw last week in the Jacksonville game: score, kickoff, tackle them on the 11 [yard line], bad punt, score again. In two minutes, you’ve got a quick turn around. So, that can work both ways, too.”
With Belichick believing that this new rule could potentially cut the number of returns in half, this could potentially have an effect on the final wide receiver spot. Brandon Tate was obviously effective in the return game last year, but struggled catching the ball on a consistent basis. With his skills in the return game now rendered a bit less important, Tate’s going to really need to shine in the next few weeks or it could mean that he’ll be looking for a new football team.
Belichick went on to say that it’s going to be an interesting year, and that they’ll need to be ready for some of the situations in the return game that will likely arise this season. As they head into the cold weather months, he said they’ll have to adjust based on who and where they’re playing, which should make things challenging.
“If you’re playing in a dome in St. Louis or Detroit or wherever, you know what it’s going to be every single week, so you can plan accordingly,” explained Belichick. “In our situation, because the elements affect the kicking game first before they affect even the passing game, we have a lot of situations that we have to deal with: we’ve got crosswinds, we kick into the wind, we kick with the wind, we’ve got weather conditions in addition to all the other variables of just the team you’re playing and what they do and so forth.
“There’re a lot of different options there and things that we have to [consider]. And the bad side of it is defensively, on the return team, we have to be ready for all of those different things, too: where they’re going to kick it and what they’re going to do and how the elements affect us. It’s an interesting part of the game, it really is.”