Of all the changes made to the NFL rulebook prior to the 2016 season, perhaps the most noteworthy was the one-year change to the touchback rule. Touchbacks on kickoffs now result in the ball being placed at the 25-yard line, rather than the 20, which we’ve become accustomed to. It was the latest step in the NFL’s fight against
fun Bryan Walters the growing concern over head injuries relating to high-speed collisions. The idea was to sweeten the pot for teams and kick returners tempted to bring kicks out of the end zone. In theory, it should’ve done the opposite – why would kickers blast a kickoff seven yards deep into the end zone rather than pooch a kick short and make the returner get all the way out to their own 25-yard line. But the NFL has gotten its way, with just one team capitalizing on the opportunity for improved field position on a regular basis: the New England Patriots.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to those familiar with Bill Belichick’s admiration of special teams. No head coach outside of former special teams coordinator John Harbaugh has a greater appreciation and understanding of the third phase of football than Belichick. The Patriots kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, is the 12th highest paid Patriot this year, while special teams ace Matt Slater - he of one career catch - is 18th.
Belichick and New England’s special teams coordinator Joe Judge took less than a month to master the NFL’s new touchback rule, and have used it to their advantage on a weekly basis. The team’s touchback percentage on kickoffs is down 15.59-percent this season – from 67.86-percent in 2015 to 52.27-percent this season. In week three, the Patriots turned what should’ve been an interesting AFC matchup against the Houston Texans into a quicksand game by kicking it short on two kickoffs, both of which resulted in fumbles recovered by the Patriots.
In a league where so many games are decided by the smallest decision or play, any opportunity for game-changing plays is huge, and it’s something the Seattle Seahawks and kicker Steven Hauschka need to begin to capitalize on. In the three games this season where the Seahawks haven’t been victorious, eight out of ten kickoffs have gone for touchbacks - one of the two that were kicked short of the end zone was muffed by New Orleans Saints kick returner Travaris Cadet. For a team that has tied a game and lost two by a combined score of 11, the tiniest margin could be the difference between playing at home or on the road in January.
In Haushcka, Seattle has one of the NFL’s most accurate and consistent kickers – fourth all-time in field goal percentage, in fact. His field goal percentage is at a healthy 88.6-percent for his career with the Seahawks, and has never dipped below 83.3-percent in a single season since he’s been here. More than that, Hauschka is an intelligent mind at a position that too often melts into a harebrained panic when pushed out of their routine. He famously told Pete Carroll he wasn’t confident in attempting a field goal in the 2013 NFC Championship game, which led to Jermaine Kearse’s game winning touchdown.
Hauschka’s intelligence, accuracy and consistency had me optimistic that Seattle would be at the forefront of manipulating the touchback rule in the team’s favour. Instead, the Seahawks touchback percentage on kickoffs is higher than ever since the NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011 – the number is of course inflated due to teams and returners being far more inclined to settle for a touchback this season. At 73.53-percent, Seattle has the fifth highest percent of kickoffs going for touchbacks in the entire league, and it’s a number much larger than in years past.
The table below shows Hauschka’s toucback percent and rank in the NFL since the league moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line prior to the 2011 season.
With players like Neiko Thorpe, Cassius Marsh and Kevin Pierre-Louis wreaking havoc on returners every and any chance they get, it’s surprising that the Seahawks don’t begin giving the special teams unit the same thing that Russell Wilson’s offense and Earl Thomas’s defense craves; a chance to make game-changing plays.
The dogs - as Ricardo Lockette would call them - on Seattle’s special teams unit embody Pete Carroll on each and every kickoff, busting full sprint to the end of the field no matter if it’s a touchback or not. It’s time for the Seahawks to give those dogs something to get after, and maybe create a turnover along the way.