Friday, August 19, 2011

Special Teams and Kickoffs

Today’s lesson explains the term “special teams.”  If you have been watching preseason football or listened to any talking heads discussing team personnel decisions, you may have heard this term several times by now.  It’s time you got the basics on what makes certain players “special.”

Generally speaking, special team refers to the group of players not involved in the offense or defense, but rather in kicking situations:  kickoffs, punts and extra point attempts.   They are “special” because they are not the players that are on the field for a typical down (or play) (although some can also be on offense or defense).  The reason special teams are significant to personnel decisions is that many players who might not otherwise make a team’s roster (usually rookies) will make the team when that team has a need on in its special team.  Over time, that player may impress the coaches enough to become a starter on offense or defense.
For this post, I want to focus on the kickoff.  Of the other types of special team plays, the kickoff looks most different from other plays, and there are some significant rule changes to kickoffs this year that you need to learn.  I have already discussed extra point attempts in a previous post.  A punt occurs if a team elects not to go for a first down on fourth down, and is very similar to a kickoff except that the formation looks more like a typical down and the kicker is called a punter instead of the place kicker.    

As I have explained previously, the first and third quarters of every game start with a kickoff.  A kickoff also occurs after a team has scored.   For kickoffs, the special team that is kicking the ball consists of the place kicker and the cover players.  The team receiving the ball will have one or two returners located deep on their end of the field where they will attempt to catch the ball; the rest of the players are blockers for the returners.  The place kicker places the ball upright on a tee in the middle of the 35-yard line.*  He will then back up about ten yards or so and raise his hand when he is ready to make the kick.  The cover players will line up along the 30 yard line and begin running forward when the kicker reaches the 30-yard line to kick the ball. 
Once the ball is kicked, one of three things will happen:  (1) a runback; (2) a touchback; or (3) the ball goes out of bounds before it reaches the end zone. 
Runback:  A "runback" is when a returner catches the ball and runs toward the opposite end zone.  In a runback, the cover players (the team that kicked the ball) will attempt to cover the distance to the returner and tackle him.  The returner’s blockers will attempt to block the cover players’ progress.  The goal for the returner, of course, is to run the whole length of the field and score a touchdown at the other end.  However, this is rare, and the spot where he is eventually tackled by the cover players, or goes out of bounds, is where his team will begin its drive toward the other end of the field.  There are, however, two players—Devin Hester (Chicago Bears) and Josh Cribbs (Cleveland Browns)—that have a particular talent for kick returns.  So much so that kickers often employ the strategy of aiming the football away from them.
Touchback:  On a kickoff, a "touchback" occurs in one of two ways: (1) the ball goes through the end zone and out of bounds; or (2) a returner catches or picks up the ball in the end zone and kneels to the ground (called "downing" the ball).  In a touchback, the ball is brought out to the 20-yard line on that end of the field and that is where the team that received the kick will begin their drive to the opposite end zone.
If the ball goes out of bounds before it reaches the end zone, and the receiving team hasn’t touched it, the kicking team gets a penalty.  Stay tuned for a further explanation of this and other kickoff-related penalties.   
You may have also heard about changes to the rules regarding kickoffs this season, and it’s important for you to understand them and their impact.  Before this season, the ball was kicked from the 30-yard line and the cover players were allowed a ten-yard head start to run before reaching the point where the ball had been.  Now, the ball is placed at the 35-yard line and the cover players are only allowed a five-yard head start.  The purpose of the rule change is to reduce the risk of injury caused by the high velocity impacts occurring as the two teams charge toward each other.  There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding these rules.  First, there is a concern that more kickoffs will result in touchbacks than ever before, which takes the excitement out of kickoffs and neutralizes the impact of players like Hester and Cribbs.  Second, the new rules may change the way teams make special team personnel decisions.  They may decide that they no longer need return specialists because there are so many more touchbacks, or that they don’t need a specialty kicker who is able to aim the ball short of the end zone. 

*Note that the ball will be teed on the 35-yard line unless either team committed a foul, such as unsportsmanlike conduct, on the scoring play that preceded the kickoff.  If that is the case, the location of the ball for the kickoff reflects the yardage penalty associated with the foul.

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