It used to be a given that an NFL team reserved a roster spot for a kickoff return specialist. In 1996, the Ravens returned 86 kickoffs, an astounding total over 16 games. You’d better have someone in place to handle the ball that much.
But that was then, before the kickoff fell out of favor in pro football over concerns that it engineered violent collisions, rendering it potentially hazardous to the health of those on the field.
In 2011, the kickoff spot was moved from the 30 to the 35, a major change that upped the likelihood of touchbacks. Sure enough, the Ravens returned just 42 kickoffs that season, about half as many as they did in 1996.
In 2016, the ball placement for a touchback was moved from the 20 to the 25 in an attempt to deter teams from blasting so many kickoffs deep into the end zone. But little changed. The Ravens returned just 28 kickoffs that season, roughly one-third as many as they did in 1996.
Given the kickoff’s precipitous decline, it’s hardly a surprise that the Ravens have stopped reserving a roster spot for a return specialist. In recent years, they’ve done it just once, with Devin Hester in 2016. Otherwise, they’ve gone with a committee of wide receivers and running backs with an aptitude for returning.
Now, however, the kickoff is poised to make something of a comeback in 2018 after special teams experts from around the league got together and tweaked the rules. Players covering kickoffs will no longer be able to get a running start, insuring that they’ll be farther from the return man when he catches the ball.
“I think we’re going to see more returns,” said Ravens Special Teams Coordinator/Associate Head Coach Jerry Rosburg, who was on the committee that tweaked the rules with the intention of “saving” the kickoff’s place in the sport while still addressing safety concerns.
Strong-legged kickers will still be able to just blast the ball through the end zone for a touchback, but if and when that doesn’t happen, return specialists will have more room to run.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of exciting plays,” Rosburg said last month at the Ravens’ minicamp. “Teams with returners are going to benefit from having a returner, because they’re going to have more opportunities. You’re not just going to be able to kick the ball into the end zone and take a knee in the end zone, like we’ve seen so many times.”
How will this altered piece of classic football theater (working title: “Return of the Return Man”) play out in Baltimore?
Right now, there doesn’t appear to be a Hester or Jacoby Jones on the roster, i.e., a player known strictly as a return specialist. Chris Moore, the third-year receiver, has more career returns than anyone (20), and he has shown an aptitude for the job, averaging a healthy 26.6 yards per return last season, with an 87-yarder included.
But Moore is also expected to get his share of snaps in the offense. With that in mind, I’m guessing the Ravens would love for a young player with superior kickoff return skills to emerge as a clear-cut No. 1. Those skills might just be enough for a roster spot now.
Tim White, the second-year receiver, impressed as a returner a year ago before suffering a season-ending finger injury. Rosburg has complimented Janarion Grant, an undrafted rookie from Rutgers who was among the best returners in college football last fall before an ankle injury ended his season.
Obviously, these and other players’ punt-return abilities could also factor into any decision-making, although that is a different skill.
No matter who returns kickoffs in 2018, I’m guessing the Ravens will be at the forefront of teams trying to take advantage of the new rules. Their strong history with kickoffs is well-documented. Both of their Super Bowl triumphs included a kickoff taken to the house. They led the league in average yards per kickoff return in 2017.
They’re good at it, period, and with the potential for more returns looming, they’ll certainly want to make the most of that.