This offseason, the NFL changed a key rule to make a touchback on a kickoff now come out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20, and the rule was designed to create more touchbacks. It may instead, however, have created even less.
Now, coaches might opt to instead kick the ball short to force a return, not wanting to give up the 25 free yards on a touchback. That’s exactly what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did on Sunday, and he thinks it had a real impact on the outcome of the game. With just a few minutes left and the Patriots leading by two points, New England kicked it short and stopped the Cardinals at the 17 yard line (it was moved back to the 8 yard line due to a penalty). Arizona wound up missing a 47-yard field goal, and Belichick thinks that had they received the extra 17 yards on the kickoff, they very well might have made a shorter field goal to win.
“I know there was a lot of sentiment to eliminate that play, but those are the kinds of plays that are good strategy plays in football,” Belichick said, according to Pro Football Talk.
“Certainly, we had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could. That was a great situational play and we needed it at that time.”
Had the Cardinals taken a touchback, they would have gained 17 yards in field position from what they actually started with. And that would have made the field goal try a 30-yard kick instead of a 47-yard kick.
“In the end, those yards showed up on the other end of the field,” Belichick said.
Another head coach was in a very similar situation on Sunday but choose to kick the touchback instead - and it may have helped contribute to a loss instead of a win. The Colts held a one-point lead with less than a minute left to play - meaning that the Lions had even less time to score than the Cardinals did against the Patriots. A penalty meant that Pat McAfee - arguably the league’s best kickoff specialist - was kicking off from near midfield, and he simply booted the ball through the end zone. That gave the Lions 25 free yards without taking any time off the clock, and they wound up winning on a field goal.
Had the Colts kicked it short and forced them to return it, they very well might have been able to stop them short of the 25 - and they surely would have been able to run some extra time off the clock. Chuck Pagano didn’t even consider it, however, because he was fearful of the “what if” scenario.
“Not much thought there,” Pagano said on Monday. “I’ve had an opportunity in the past and I’ve been burned in the past with end of half, end of game things where you kick a ball when you are supposed to kick it out of bounds and you kick it to a guy you aren’t supposed to kick it to and he runs it back for a touchdown. All of that sounds good until you do that and then something happens and they run it back for a touchdown. I’m counting on our defense in that situation to go out there and play good football with 37 seconds on the clock and get us off the field and somebody make a play. We had opportunities and we didn’t execute well enough and they did.”
Pagano is right in the sense that the defense still holds the primary blame in not being able to stop Detroit, but Pagano had to have known his defense was struggling - they had given up 34 points up to that point in the game. He could have tried to help them out however he could, but instead he choose to just kick it deep, saying he’s been burned by returns before (one example he mentioned on Wednesday was a punt return by the Broncos before the end of the first half last year).
But that’s much different than what Chuck Pagano had said during training camp.
“You know what, I think we’d be silly not to [consider it],” Pagano said during camp regarding shorter kickoffs. The Colts did try it out some during the preseason, but he said that he didn’t really even give much consideration to doing so late in the game on Sunday - which, in his own words, means he was being silly.
In the end, Chuck Pagano shouldn’t shoulder the main responsibility for the loss, regardless of whether you think he should have used his timeout or kickoff strategy differently - the primary blame goes to the defense. But at the same time, on Sunday we saw two different coaches - Bill Belichick and Chuck Pagano - in similar situations choose differing strategies, and one of them helped his team while the other didn’t. It shouldn’t surprise anyone which was which.