— Rookie Randall Cobb took the kickoff 8 yards deep in the Packers end zone, juked a defender just before the 10-yard line, flipped and spun out of a tackle at the 20-yard line, then found daylight. A few seconds later, Cobb had tied the record for the longest kickoff return in NFL history: 108 yards.
It was one of the greatest highlights in a season opener full of highlights, but it also looked like a rookie mistake. Everyone knows you are supposed to kneel when you field a kickoff 8 yards deep in the end zone. The NFL moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line this season in an attempt to eliminate dangerous collisions. Return men such as Cobb are supposed to be mall cops in the end zone, observing and reporting on balls that sail over their heads while catching the occasional straggler.
But the Cobb touchdown was no rookie mistake. Special teams coaches and returners are adapting quickly to the new rules. The kickoff return is not dead. In fact, it’s more exciting than ever.
Many happy returns
Cobb wasn't the only player to return a kickoff from the end zone for a touchdown in Week 1. Percy Harvin went 103 yards, Ted Ginn 102. But it's not unusual — returners often field the ball two or three yards deep and take their chances, especially well-regarded specialists like Harvin and Ginn.
There have been 58 kickoff-return TDs of 101 to 103 yards in NFL history, but only 25 of 104 or more yards and only six (including Cobb’s) of 106 or more. Historically, the depth limit on kick returns from the end zone has been 4 yards, with a few exceptions: last returns before half or the end of the game (when field position won’t matter), or desperate attempts by the exceptionally talented or foolish.
The new rules have changed coaches’ thinking. In the past, returners waited for kicks at the goal line. Now, they're waiting nine yards deep. From the nether regions of the end zone, they can get a running start on a kick and get a feel for its hang time. If it's a line drive, the returner can take his chances.
Coaches of top returners such as the Bears' Devin Hester made it clear before Week 1 they have the “green light” to take deep kickoffs out of the end zone.
The new tactics paid dividends in the openers. There were 37 returns of kickoffs that traveled four or more yards into the end zone. Those returns averaged 29.7 yards in length, giving the offense average starting field position on the 23.9 yard line.
If you consider Cobb’s touchdown an outlier and throw it out, offenses still got the ball on the 21.8-yard line. That beats a touchback, if only by 2 yards.
There were several big plays on deep kickoffs besides Cobb’s touchdown. The Browns' Josh Cribbs had a 51-yard return on an 8-yard-deep kick. The Steelers' Antonio Brown had a 41-yarder on a deep kick, then later drew a 15-yard penalty at the end of a 31-yard return.
Both the Browns and Steelers formed blocking wedges near the 10-yard line for the returners. Each team also provided an extra blocker at the front of the end zone: Michael Adams for the Browns, Isaac Redman for the Steelers. The blockers are in position to field shorter “squib” kickoffs or take on the first defender to crash through the wedge or knife in from along the sideline.
Not every deep return was a success. Bengals returner Brandon Tate took four kicks out of the back of the end zone but twice got his team pinned inside the 10-yard line. Neither the Lions nor the Buccaneers attempted a deep return in their meeting, so not every team has embraced the idea of bringing kicks out from 8 yards deep.
The Broncos and Raiders never had a chance, because most kicks sailed out of the end zone. There may not be a single kickoff return in Mile High this season; if one happens, it will be at the end of the year, when the weather gets bad.
Coming in from the cold
That last point means that the good Week 1 news for returners will only get better as the season progresses. As weather gets colder, kickoffs get shorter.
Football Outsiders has studied kickoff yardage for years. Over the course of a season, kickoff lengths decrease by an average of 3-5 yards. In cold-weather stadiums like Buffalo, the effect is more pronounced than in warm locations like Tampa.
In Denver, kickoff lengths average 68 yards at the start of the year but drop to just over 64 yards by season’s end, meaning that the kicks that currently float off to heaven will actually land somewhere on the field of play come December. (In dome stadiums, as you might expect, kickoff lengths are roughly constant through the year).
Shorter kickoffs mean more opportunities for returners. Make no mistake: there were a lot of touchbacks in Week 1, and those deep kicks left many returners twiddling their thumbs. There were only 80 returns last week, and there would have been far fewer without all of the deep returns.
In 2010, there were 127 returns per non-bye week. Take three or four yards off most kickoffs as the cold weather settles in and keep the green lights, and by the playoffs we should see about 100 returns per week, or about three per team per game.
Last year, the average kick return netted 22.3 yards. Eleven teams averaged over 24 yards per return. Taking all other variables into consideration — the score of the game (a team with the lead should be more risk adverse and take the touchback), the trajectory of the kick, the quality of the opponents — it makes sense for a team with an elite returner like Cribbs, Hester, or Leon Washington to take its chances on a deep kickoff.
With kickoffs likely to get shorter as the year goes on, it’s also smart to get the return unit ready to bring the ball out of the end zone. Youngsters like Cobb must learn to distinguish returnable kickoffs from bad ones, and their blockers must be ready to set that wedge close to the goal line. No team wants to attempt its first kickoff of the year in Lambeau in November because they waited two months for the ball to land at the two-yard line.
Top specialists will still get to make an impact this year, and long kickoff returns will still play a part in the playoff race, which is always good news for a team like the Bears. If a kickoff returner wants to be a Super Bowl hero, though, he will have to do it from eight yards deep: Super Bowl XLVI will be played in Indianapolis, inside a touchback-friendly dome.