Preseason Offers Test Drive Of New Kickoff Rules

Posted Aug 8, 2011

Coaches confident in Ryan Succop's skill set aligning with changes to the kicking game

ST. JOSEPH, MO – The market for kickoff specialists might grow in 2011, but the Chiefs currently have no intention in making such a move. Ryan Succop will be the one tackling new kickoff rules when the Chiefs kickoff the preseason Friday night.

“I think that we’re excited about Ryan’s skills and how they’ll potentially play into (the rule changes), one way or another, whatever philosophy you take as a kickoff team,” Head Coach Todd Haley said.

Kickoffs are moving forward five yards to the 35-yard line this year. In addition, coverage units may position themselves no further than five yards behind the football prior to the kick.

“The ball is being kicked at the 35, but at the 30-yard line the kickoff guys will all be lined up and they’ll wait for the kicker to pass them before they start going,” long-time NFL official Ed Hochuli explained. “It’s going to be a different look and the theory for the change was that the kickoff was probably the most dangerous play in football with both teams running at one another going full speed.”

“It’s a big change,” Haley added.

The easy prediction is that the amount of touchbacks will rise across the league. Most are expecting an increase of 5-15% from 2010.

Last season, 416 of 2,539 kickoffs (16.4%) were downed for touchbacks. Ravens K Billy Cundiff led the league by sailing over 50% (40 of 79) of his kicks unreturnable into the end zone.

Employing a big-footed specialist may be a temptation that some teams wrestle with throughout the season. The ability to decrease special teams scoring plays while increasing control over field position offers plenty of advantages. Of course, the downside would be a pair of kickers occupying two spots on the 46-man gameday roster.

“It will be interesting to see if there are actually more touchbacks,” Hochuli said. “A lot of teams are talking about kicking the ball higher and bringing it down over in the corner near the goal line.”

Despite his big leg, Succop’s touchback percentage ranked in the lower half of the NFL last season. However, that ranking is somewhat misleading considering the amount of times Succop was asked to pooch his kickoffs last season.

The higher, but shorter kicks helped Kansas City yield just 20.2 yards per kickoff return last season. That total ranked as the NFL’s sixth-best mark last season.

Against Cleveland, the Chiefs kept the football out of returner Josh Cribbs’ hands utilizing mortar kicks throughout the contest. There’s an advantage to using those types of kicks under the new rules if a kicker can consistently lob the football inside the 10-yard line.

Haley plans on using the preseason to test different kickoff strategies.

“I think this changes it for us in our approach,” Haley said. “We’re kind of feeling our way through that. We don’t want to make any decisions until we get through a couple of these games and really see what they look like. Ryan will play a big role in that also.”

Succop looks to be the lone kicker going forward. The prospect of adding a kickoff specialist doesn’t align with Haley’s view of roster versatility. “The more you can do” mantra doesn’t typically embrace niche players; particularly when it involves carrying four specialists that don’t contribute on offense or defense.

For years, coaches have tried find ways to eliminate niche specialists without much success. Dick Vermeil couldn’t stand the fact that a roster slot was reserved for a long snapper each week and continually tried to find a position player to take over the job.

The prospect of doubling as a defensive end and long snapper was one of the primary reasons the Chiefs made Jared Allen a fourth-round pick in 2004. He turned out to be a fine defensive end, but when it came down to it, nobody could come close to upending Kendall Gammon’s snapping efficiency.

The risk of a bad snap losing a game was a much greater hazard than forfeiting an additional position player on the active roster. For what it’s worth, Brandon Siler was the backup long snapper in San Diego.

Mortar kicks, pooch kicks and deep shots – Succop may try them all this preseason as the Chiefs seek out the most efficient way to attack new kickoff rules.

“We’ll just have to see how it looks in real action and adjust from there,” Haley said. “We’re excited about Ryan and his development. Coach (Steve) Hoffman has done just a terrific job with both he and Dustin (Colquitt), and (Thomas Gafford) for that matter. We think his skill set will lend itself to helping us have some success as a kickoff cover team, which we need.”

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