CHARLOTTE – Before getting into the ins and outs of the NFL's new kickoff rules, one thing should be made clear: Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn believes the kickoff belongs in the game.
“Obviously, you want to keep it,” Blackburn said after a recent OTA practice. “You take that away and you take away a very electric part of this game.”
The NFL [recently announced changes](https://nflcommunications.com/Documents/2018 Offseason/Playing Rules Proposals - Spring 5.22.18.pdf) to the kickoff for the 2018 season, and many have speculated that it could be the first step toward eventually eliminating the play entirely due to safety concerns.
“It’s such an integral part of the game,” said Blackburn, who is entering his first season as coordinator after two years as an assistant. “It can impact the outcome; it can create an instantaneous momentum shift. Guys are making careers from it or using it as a starting point. It creates opportunities for guys and also makes it exciting for the fans.”
Blackburn is a perfect example of one of those guys who made a career out of special teams. He beat the odds as an undrafted linebacker with the Giants in 2005 by proving to be an impact player on coverage units. Over the years, he contributed more and more on defense and finished his career with 45 starts.
It all started with special teams, and Blackburn doesn’t want to see those opportunities eliminated for guys trying to prove they belong. But he also understands the importance of making the game safer, especially as it pertains to head injuries.
“We’re taking out some of those big collisions,” Blackburn said of the rule change, which prohibits the coverage team from taking a running start and prohibits wedge blocks. “By taking away some of those collisions, I think it will reduce head injuries.”
Added special teams assistant coach Heath Farwell, who, like Blackburn, played on special teams from 2005-14: “We want safety. That’s what is best for the game in general. We want it safe for kids playing it, safe for the players here. We can fine-tune it and make it safer.”
The hope for everyone involved is that the play becomes safer while remaining exciting and impactful – like Damiere Byrd’s exhilarating 103-yard touchdown return this past season against Tampa Bay.
Speaking of impact, how exactly these rules impact kickoff strategies across the league will keep Blackburn and Farwell very busy during the preseason and into the regular season.
“Preseason is going to determine a lot,” Blackburn said. “It’ll be a copycat league like it always is. We’ll see what strategies are working and look at the timing and spacing. Hopefully, we’ll be the team that people are copying.”
Blackburn is eager to see what the play looks like with more speed and space on the field. No wedge blocking means no more 300-pound linemen blocking on the return team. We’ll see more linebackers, tight ends and big wideouts/defensive backs. Another change, which states that at least eight players on the returning team must be in a 15-yard setup zone closer to where the ball is kicked, should create more space for playmakers to maneuver.
“It will still be a really exciting play, I have no doubt,” Blackburn said.
And as has been the case for a few years now, teams will continue to weigh the risk/reward of hanging the ball in the air to force a return as opposed to booting it through the end zone for a touchback that comes out to the 25-yard line.
“It goes by strategy and how you feel about it,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “You have to be careful too, now. You do that against the wrong guy and it could be a quick six.”