The Touchback Era Is Ruining the Game
Special teams used to have a major impact and serve as a proving ground for players and coaches. The new rules have turned the third phase of the game into an afterthought—and sucked some of the fun out of football
Editor’s Note: Mike Westhoff retired this year after a 31-year run as an NFL assistant coach and special-teams coach. He spent the past 27 years with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, and he was known for terrific coverage teams, led by career special-teamers like Bernie Parmalee and Larry Izzo. In his first season out of the NFL since 1981, Westhoff, 65, who is working as an analyst on the Jets’ radio network, has studied special-teams play through a month of the 2013 season—and he doesn’t like how the kicking game is trending.
By Mike Westhoff
One of my former players, Chris Hayes, called me this week. He had a good career, seven years, as a special-teams player with the Packers, Jets and Patriots, and we’ve stayed in touch since he left the game in 2003. The first thing he said to me was, “Coach, where have the special teams gone?”
I knew exactly what he meant. When Chris played, the nucleus guys on your kicking teams used to get 20 to 25 plays a game, maybe as many as 27. Now, they might get five to eight … five plays a game on which special teams can make an impact the way they used to. That claim takes some explanation, because obviously players are out on the field for many more plays in the kicking game than five. And I will explain it.
But here’s the simple way to look at it. Matt Prater kicks off for Denver. Obviously, with that explosive offense the Broncos have, he’s going to be kicking off a lot. But through four games he’s had 25 touchbacks and only eight kicks returned. That, obviously, stems from the rule the NFL put into play in 2011—moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. Prater kicked for Denver in 2010 too. He had only 20 touchbacks all season then. In 2010 he had 63 percent of his kicks returned. This year, only 24 percent of his kicks are being returned.
Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.
Now let’s look at the other side of the ball for the Broncos. Their kick returner, Trindon Holliday, is one of the most exciting players in football. We all saw him light up Baltimore in the playoffs last year. And he’s got two special-teams touchdowns (one kick return and one punt return) already this year, with the rules as restrictive as they are. Even more amazing? Holliday has had a chance to return three kickoffs this season; the rest were touchbacks. So this play that gets stadiums going crazy and can change the momentum of a game in an instant (one of his three returns was a 105-yard touchdown), this play that gives Holliday a chance to make an NFL Films memory, has been mostly eliminated. Three kick returns for Holliday in four games.
Is that good for the game? I don’t think it is.
We’re in the entertainment business, and the league has taken away a lot of the entertaining plays.
I’ve got an idea to make Trindon Holliday and Devin Hester and the new kid in Minnesota, Cordarelle Patterson, impact players again—every Sunday. But let’s get to the crux of the matter first.
I understand why the NFL wanted to make some of the rules changes it has made on special teams. It’s not just the kickoff rule, where the NFL was trying to eliminate some of the big collisions that caused concussions and neck and back injuries. It’s also the rule protecting the center on extra points and field goals. Now you can’t line up over the center and crash into him before he’s able to protect himself. And you can’t push the pile either, creating the kind of force on the interior blockers on extra points and field goals that wasn’t good for the health of centers and guards. I get the rules. And I don’t want to damage football. But, with the kickoff rule, what I never understood is how the league could go from A to Z without trying some intermediate steps to make sure the excitement of the kickoff stays in the game.
The byproduct of this is something no one seems to be paying attention to. Teams aren’t emphasizing special teams in the past two or three years when they fill out their rosters, for a very simple reason: There aren’t enough impact plays in the course of a game for a coach and general manager, when they’re cutting the roster, to keep a guy who may be nothing more than a backup at a certain position but who would be a great guy covering kicks or blocking punts.
What I worry about when I see the diminished impact of special teams on NFL games today is this: Would Steve Tasker or Bernie Parmalee or Larry Izzo have had careers in football today with these rules? Steve’s one of the best special-teamers of all time, and Bernie and Larry aren’t far behind. Think of all the games they won, or had huge impacts on. And think of erasing them from football history. I just think that’s a very big loss for the sport.