NFL ownership voted to adopt a new fair catch rule on Monday that will likely further disincentivize kickoff returns. Every kickoff that is fairly-caught within the receiving team’s 25-yard line will automatically be placed at the 25 this upcoming season.
Per the league’s own projections, this will reduce the return rate from 38 to 31 percent. While the NFL also believes the concussion rate will drop 15 percent as a result of this new rule, there was a broad pushback across the league.
Head coaches, special teams coordinators, and players alike were against the proposal submitted by the competition committee. Ultimately, however, ownership voted differently: 26 of the 32 owners were in favor of adopting a rule commissioner Roger Goodell lobbied hard for. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Raiders abstained and five clubs voted against the proposal.
Among those were the New England Patriots, according to a report by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears also joined them.
The motivations behind the Patriots’ “nay” vote are not public knowledge at this point, but it is not hard to see why they are against the new fair catch rule. It is, after all, another step toward making kickoffs, and by extension special teams as a whole, a significantly smaller part of the game.
That process started several years ago, and New England head coach Bill Belichick has been a sceptic since the beginning. When the competition committee succeeded in moving the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line to the 35 and the touchback line from the 25 to the 20, for example, Belichick voiced his displeasure and doubts about the motivations.
“Part of the touchback is, ‘Well, we think it’s going to be a touchback so everybody’s really not playing at the same speed because we think it’s a touchback. It’s going to be a no-play,’” he said in 2017. “But then as a coverage team you don’t know for sure the guy isn’t coming out or not, so you’re playing it at full speed. Some of the concussions and some of the injuries look to me like they come on touchbacks. ...
“So, we want more touchbacks. Is that really solving the problem here as it’s been presented by the competition committee? I mean, I think you know how I feel about it. We’ll see how smart some of that has really been to address the problems that we think are being addressed.”
Almost six years later, it seems unlikely Belichick’s position has changed a lot. His team voting against the new fair catch rule appears to be proof of that.