Every NFL coach will spend the next couple days studying film from the championship game. They’d do well to spend some part of the off season dissecting film from a rival code.
With the NFL continuing to mitigate concussion risk, a move that rugby fans will recognize as well, special teams have received the biggest modifications.
(Note: for our non-NFL readers, special teams is considered the third phase of American gridiron football. It focuses on all kicking plays, both when the team is kicking and receiving the ball.)
Special teams coordinators have struggled to evolve with the modified rules, especially on kickoffs when the kicking team trails late in the game. Down one possession with little time on the clock, teams would historically attempt an onside kick. The base concept is similar to a rugby kickoff, with the keep difference being the kick taken from the tee instead of dropped.
The NFL modified the onside kick several years ago to minimize the extraordinary concussion risk on kicks. Rule changes required five players from the kicking team on either side of the kicker. Additionally, changes pushed eight of the eleven receiving player within the fifteen yards behind the restraining line (the line ten yards past the point where the kick is taken).
How do you break that down? Ditch the tee.
While kicks have traditionally occurred from the tee, its impossible to create a high arch from that method. That leaves kickers trying some insane spins. Instead, they’d do well to switch to the dropkick.
Under NFL Rule 6 Section 1 Paragraph 1, A kickoff puts the ball in play at the start of each half, after a try, and after a successful field goal. A dropkick or placekick may be used for a kickoff. That means that every NFL kickoff has the option to look like a rugby kickoff.
The implications would be huge. A dropkick would create a jump ball situation with teams competing to either receive the ball cleanly or knock it back for a teammate.
The tactical uses are several. Use for onside kicks in late game situations is obvious. A more risk tolerant team could use the move earlier in the game. With other rule changes continuing to benefit the offense, a team with a struggling defense could roll the dice on competing for possession at the kickoff. The obvious risk would be conceding possession past midfield, but teams have taken on significantly more risk across the game with the rise of complex analytics.
Will any NFL teams take up the call? Unlikely. Gridiron continues to have a conservative culture, only changing in baby steps. But if one up and coming special teams coach wants to make a name in the game, shoot us a message.