This offseason, the NFL owners passed a series of new rule changes, but perhaps none of them will have a bigger impact than the touchback change. Instead of bringing the ball out to the 20-yard line on touchbacks, the ball will now be spotted at the 25-yard line. In a league in which coaches don’t want to give up any yards, five free yards after every kickoff certainly won’t go over well.
The intent of the rule change was to limit kick returns in an effort to limit injuries, as the thinking likely was that returners would be more likely to take a touchback instead of run it out. Ever since the rule was being considered, however, many (including myself) thought that it could backfire and have the opposite effect: actually increasing kick returns. This would happen if teams tried kicking off shorter so that the returner caught the ball at the two yard line, for example. But is that something seriously being considered, particularly by the Colts?
“You know what, I think we’d be silly not to [consider it],” Pagano said Friday. “We’ve been working both. We’ve been kicking mortars and certainly I think everybody else is going to do the same thing, especially in the preseason. You see more people going for two in the preseason. You see more fourth down tries in the preseason. Guys are going to throw things out there. You could see more gadgets if you will in special teams. On the offensive side, you risk a lot more. There’s nothing obviously on the line so you might as well throw some stuff out there.”
In other words, I think we can expect the Colts to try shorter kickoffs in preseason games. The intent behind trying it out would be simple: how consistently can Pat McAfee pinpoint his kick to the right spot, and can the coverage units do well enough to make the strategy worth it. Make no mistake, though: the Colts are preparing for the shorter kickoffs, both done by them and against them.
We’re prepared to defend those and catch those,” Pagano continued. “We got some big guys in the back end that aren’t natural catchers. Guys that are back there in a two-man wedge and things like that so we’ve been working on it. I think with guys as skilled at Pat is at kicking off, we know he can knock it out of the back of the end zone, but I don’t necessarily want to just give up a 25-yard line drive start.”
That last line is, to me, the key of Pagano’s entire comment: he doesn’t want to give up a free five extra yards to the opponent by bringing it out to the 25-yard line. It’s hard to blame him for that either (especially as a defensive-minded coach), so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Colts experiment with different strategies in preseason to combat that. Regardless of what they ultimately decide to do, it’s very likely that Pat McAfee will play an even more important role in 2016 than he already does.