New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick cares more about special teams than almost any other head coach in the NFL. He was primarily a special teams coach for his first decade in coaching, before transitioning to the defensive side of the ball, and he’s watched the importance of special teams play shift over the years.
“When I came into the league on special teams you had six phases,” Belichick said in his Monday press conference. “Every phase was very competitive, so field goal protection, field goal rush, kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return - now that's really down to just two phases; punt and punt return.
“Field goals - it's very hard to block a field goal because of the rules. You can't hit the center, you can't jump, you can't overload, you can't do much of anything. You just have to make a great play to somehow split the coverage or have a bad kick or both to really affect that play. It's not impossible but it's hard, so field goal protection isn't what it used to be and the field goal rush has really been taken out of the game.
“Then when you start touch-backing the kickoffs you take the coverage players out of the game because you and I could cover a lot of the kickoffs when they're nine, 10, 11 yards deep in the end zone. You don't need anybody to cover them and the same thing with the return game. They don't block because there's no return, so it's become a punt and punt return game and that's where a lot of the emphasis now has to go in the kicking game because that's where most of the plays are.”
Thanks to the new kickoff rule that places touchbacks at the 25-yard line instead of at the 20-yard line, Belichick is bringing the kickoff and kick return game back into focus.
“Getting the ball out to the 25-yard line is obviously harder than getting it out to the 20,” Belichick said, “and those touchbacks that put it on the 20, I mean I know it's only five yards- and five yards is five yards- but it just seems like it was a lot easier for teams to just touchback and put the ball on the 20, whereas now there's just a little more incentive to make them return it to the 25 as opposed to just handing them the ball on the 25-yard line.”
The Patriots have seen a kick return on 8 of their 18 kickoffs this year as most teams are trying to land the kickoff inside the 5-yard line to entice a kick return. There are so few returnmen in the league that average more than 25 yards per return, which means that kicking a touchback would be conceding yards that a team doesn’t have to concede.
Patriots opponents are starting their average drive on the 19 yard line, by far the best in the NFL, thanks to the New England kickoff coverage unit. Two-thirds of NFL teams are pinning their opponent inside the 25-yard line, which means that forcing a return will continue to gain traction by teams with good kickoff coverage squads.
Thankfully, Belichick has never been afraid of spending money on his special teams, including on kicker Stephen Gostkowski and his considerable leg talent, and has always kept this phase of the game in focus.
“I would say over the last couple of years because of fewer and fewer kickoffs were returned,’ Belichick said, “it made decisions tougher for teams, made it tougher for teams to carry guys on the roster whose strength was on kickoff or kickoff return, whether that be the returner, or a coverage player, or a wedge guy or something like that because you just weren't getting very many shots at it. And so if you have a real good kickoff returner, how many times are you going to get to return it? In some games you're probably not going to get to return any.”
The Patriots have kept the coverage players in Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner and Brandon Bolden and Brandon King, and have added Jonathan Jones and Barkevious Mingo. This is a team that was ready for the rule change and has been taking advantage of the situation.
Belichick believes that the value of special teams players will increase in the coming years “as the kickoffs are coming back into” the game, and he’s bought into the market while it was still young.
So long as touchbacks continue to go to the 25-yard line, Belichick and the Patriots will continue to add back the kickoff phases of special teams, and they’ll be a step ahead of the rest of the league.